Beauty And The Beast On The High Seas: What It’s Like To Setup A HTC Vive On A Cruise Ship

Virtual Reality (VR) is truly taking off but its current moment might best be described as Beauty and the Beast. Great VR is transcendental, where the experience takes you to places more magical than you could have ever imagined. BUT, to get these experiences running high-end virtual reality headsets, you need to deal with monstrous, cumbersome technology. This promising but yet-to-be-fully-realized relationship was immediately, and painfully, apparent during my experience trying to demo VR to a cruise ship full of techies the other week. Here’s the story in two acts.

ACT 1 — The Project and its Purpose

Rothenberg Ventures, known for its early endorsement of VR and for investing in VR companies, set out to host “The Virtual Reality Experience” during the Summit at Sea cruise from November 13th — 16th. Summit brought together 3,000 young, technologically savvy entrepreneurs and creatives for several days to connect and experience the latest breakthroughs. It was an ideal audience for demoing VR.

We brought along numerous Samsung Gear VR experiences to demo but I was most excited to show Tilt Brush on the HTC Vive — where a person paints virtually in 3D space. If you don’t know what Tilt Brush is, watch Glen Keane, Disney Animator, paint The Little Mermaid in Tilt Brush.

The HTC Vive is, without a doubt, today’s most high-end virtual reality device. It is also the biggest of VR’s beasts.

The Vive sits at one end of the continuum of VR headsets (with Google Cardboard on the other) because the Vive requires a supercomputer with at least an Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 graphics card. (For non-technical people out there, this means that the graphics card required to run it is approximately the size of your forearm.) The Vive far outpaces Cardboard and other headsets but that beauty comes with a beastly set up — so complex that its instructions have “32 steps”. Why bother with such complexity when other headsets require only a smart phone and good wifi? The beast is the necessary evil to the beauty — the best VR experience on the market.

ACT 2 — The Demo Disaster

Before the trip, we trained for days: setting up the Vive, taking down the Vive and setting it back up again (thank you River Studios for your help)! The more we troubleshooted, the more comfortable we felt taking this Vive to the Virtual Reality Experience. We were to demo from 10:30PM-12:30PM on Friday, the day we boarded the ship, and then from 12PM-6PM and 10:30PM-12:30PM on Saturday.

In hindsight we should have shipped our equipment and arrived a day early to ensure it was working properly. In reality, we brought our gear as luggage: 3 Pelican cases filled with the HTC Vive, the supercomputer and monitor, a suitcase full of wires, a suitcase full of Google Cardboard and a suitcase full of 12 Samsung Gear VRs. We tightly fit everything to make sure that nothing would crack on the commute from San Francisco to Miami where the cruise would set sail.

As soon as my Rothenberg teammates (Bret Bechis, Dylan Flinn, Georgia Kinne, Tommy Leep and Mike Rothenberg) and I boarded the ship, we scrambled to set up inside our tent in order to demo before the ship set sail. We got out the supercomputer, monitor and c-stands that hold the Lighthouse trackers. With all the pieces in the right place and connected, I turned on the computer.

Nada.

I try again. Nothing. At first we were not panicked. We hopped into fix-it mode: What could the problem be? We opened up the hood of the computer to check…

Every power supply wire had been pulled from apart, the CPU had been ripped from the motherboard and was now cracked! At first, we thought that the parts had fallen out during transit, but the more we analyzed, the more it was clear that someone had maliciously dismantled our super computer. TSA or Customs were the only ones with access to our computer during transit — but why did they meddle? No time to figure that out.

It was Day One demo hour and we were stuck on a cruise ship with a discombobulated computer, unable to wow any of the audience our tent was drawing. Disaster at sea!

A lucky star arrived in the person of Orion Henry (unbeknownst to us initially, the founder of Heroku). He had come into the experience room, excited to try the Vive. Dylan asked if Orion could help assess our problem with the computer and he agreed! For about 2 hours he wrestled with the beast and, calling on the help of others, he got the computer working by plugging in the power supply wires and jamming the CPU back into the motherboard.

Setup in the Virtual Reality Experience Room

After another 30 minutes setup time, we finally offered the thrilling experience of virtual drawing in Tilt Brush around 1AM! After about 3 demos, the supercomputer began to act up so we decided to pack away the beast for its next performance tomorrow.

Disaster struck the next day too. The CPU had once again fallen off the motherboard sending me on a frenzied hunt throughout the ship for superglue, pliers and Orion. Like the beacon in the sky his name reflects, Orion arrived and after about another hour of troubleshooting, got the computer working again. We were thankful — but way, way, way behind schedule.

Fast forward 12 hours and it was decided that because we had lost so much time setting up the Vive and potential enthusiasts, we would demo in the middle of the Summit dance floor Sunday evening!

Imagine this: it’s after midnight as our team hauls our pelican suitcases and c-stands, our hands grasping snaking extension chords as we navigate among gyrating bodies in the middle of the cruise’s dance floor! And that was just the beginning — disaster was about to strike again.

Around 2AM, our setup was looking good: the computer was on and the Lighthouse trackers were functioning. But the Vive wouldn’t sync with the computer. No time for the 32 step instructions! For 30 minutes we try different alternatives: getting the headset in the direct line between the 2 Lighthouse trackers, unplugging the headset cables into different positions on the computer, rebooting the entire computer. It was 2:30AM, I’m on the floor while trying to retain my composure and modesty (I’m in a cocktail dress and heels) and finally we get the Beast ready for Beauty.

From 2:30–4:00AM Monday morning, out of the love for VR, we demoed Tilt Brush and successfully turned the curious into VR believers — more than any other night!

The Takeaways

Hindsight, people say, is 20–20 and I would agree. Were we to do this again, we would definitely ship our gear and not bring it as luggage. We would arrive a day ahead and ensure that the gear was running properly. But there is also something fun about being gritty with new technology — shoehorning things until they work because you are so convinced that the beauty people experience is worth dealing with the beastly material side. It’s the very early phase of VR and such crazy stories characterize all new technologies. You have to have a passion for your product, a passion that fires you up even when you’re exhausted. That’s where I am right now and why I look at the cruise as yet another in a line of learning experiences that we will have as we move VR forward.

The final takeaway, however, is serious. VR enthusiasts, developers and true believers will overcome the beast side of current technology but consumers, in general, will not. VR will have to offer incredible beauty without expensive, supercomputer beasts to go mainstream.


A special thanks to my incredible teammates for sticking through the hardship and troubleshooting together to get the Vive working!

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