It’s 9 o’clock at night. Aaron Gilroy has been working 14-hour days nonstop for months. The tireless program manager’s latest task: hauling a dozen greasy bags of Kentucky Fried Chicken to a building in a scruffy light-industrial neighborhood in Silicon Valley.
Step through an unmarked door and drop off your smartphone with a security guard. You’ll find the people who will devour all that chicken — a team of engineers clad in blue lab coats huddled over work benches and peering through magnifying lamps. They’re piecing together some of the first few examples of a device known as Project SHIELD.
Their work — and the work of the hundreds of other NVIDIANs who have toiled away for months on the project in secret — is about to pay off. Andrew Bell, NVIDIA’s vice president of hardware engineering picks up one of the compact silver-and-black gizmos, flips up its screen and places his fingers on the portable gaming device’s thumb sticks.
“It just says ‘Play with me,’” he says as the metallic tang of freshly-soldered circuit boards hangs in the air.
Ten days later NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang walked onto a stage in Las Vegas on the eve of the Consumer Electronics Show and hit an audience of gamers, journalists and industry insiders with a sucker punch. Some were skeptical. Others not-so-much: one man shouted “take my money,” mid-way through Jen-Hsun’s introduction of Project SHIELD.
And just like Andrew Bell, everyone wanted to pick one up and start playing.
Speed of Light
The story behind Project SHIELD is a tale of an idea as much as it is of a product. Jen-Hsun — NVIDIA’s intense, motorcycle-jacket clad leader calls that idea ‘speed of light’ (or ‘speedolight’ as he says it). The notion isn’t to hit impossible deadlines fueled by adrenaline and fried chicken grease. It’s to understand the limits of what can be done and work within only those basic constraints.
“We couldn’t prove that it couldn’t be done,” says NVIDIA Senior Vice President of Content and Strategy Tony Tamasi, who has quietly led NVIDIA’s interactions with game developers for more than a decade. “So we decided it could be.”
That’s because it turns out NVIDIA had everything it needed to build a new kind of gaming device all along. Rather than engineering a one-of-a-kind console CPU and a GPU, NVIDIA engineers slid their next-generation mobile chip – and its powerful graphics capabilities – into the device.
And rather than building special software — and cultivating a walled-garden of proprietary gaming content — NVIDIA opened its device up. SHIELD runs on the same Android software now powering millions of Tegra devices. Plus it can stream games from the tens of millions of PCs built with NVIDIA’s GPUs.
By Gamers, For Gamers
Maybe that’s why the more NVIDIANs rushed the more things fell into place. In less than a year, SHIELD has grown from an idea dreamed up by Jen-Hsun, Tony, and a handful of others into a conspiracy involving hundreds of gaming fanatics across every department at NVIDIA. “We’ve been talking on and off about building something for more than five years, maybe 10,” says Tony.
Project SHIELD began with an effort to strip gaming down to its most essential component: a great controller. “We wrote all the core software to hook Android games to controllers,” Tony says. “Then we thought ‘Why don’t we just build a device with a great controller built in?”
The first prototype, assembled in early 2012, was little more than a game controller fastened to a smartphone with wood. From that crude beginning, NVIDIA’s team of industrial designers sculpted a device that could fit in a user’s hands. No outsourcing required: NVIDIA has a team of veterans who have already shaped the look of a number of products built around NVIDIA’s processors, such as the drool-worthy GeForce GTX 690.
NVIDIA could also tap into the talents of software designers who knew their way around everything from PC driver software to the Android operating system intimately. Tao Xie and Michelle Tomasko helped lead a team of engineers that aimed to pour software into a device that could deliver a great Android gaming experience, stream games from a PC to SHIELD and connect it all to SHIELD’s built-in 5-inch display or big screen TVs.
Yes, It Can Play Crysis
And because SHIELD isn’t a gaming console, it can do things a gaming console can’t. Because it runs Android, it takes advantage of the thousands of games that have been built for Android. It can also run the Android games that have been specially-tuned for Tegra featured in NVIDIA’s TegraZone mobile gaming app – which has been downloaded by more than 6 million gamers. “The challenge in the past – with the old model consoles – is software; but thanks to Android we didn’t have to come at it trying to build a walled-garden ecosystem,” Tony says.
Perhaps the killer app, though, is SHIELD’s ability to tap into another open ecosystem: the thriving PC gaming market. Streaming games from PCs equipped with NVIDIA GeForce GTX 650 or better GPUs puts cutting-edge games on SHIELD on day one. As NVIDIA’s smart, funny marketing VP Ujesh Desai put it, when cynical gamers ask the eternal question – ‘but can it play Crysis’ – NVIDIA will have a simple answer ‘yes it does.’
That openness does more than provide a gaming library tens of thousands of titles deep. It also gives SHIELD the flexibility to tap into innovative new services built for the PC ecosystem, such as the “Big Picture” mode software developer Valve has created for its Steam software distribution service. “Big Picture,” let’s gamers put the games they’ve purchased through Steam on the TV in their living room.
Developers who had been lobbying Tamasi for years to launch a game console were impressed. “You guys have balls,” one told Tony.
What the NVIDIANs working on the project didn’t have was time. In September, Jen-Hsun decided to build the device in time for the introduction of NVIDIA’s next-generation mobile processor, code-named Wayne – and now known as Tegra 4 — at CES.
The ‘Kung Fu’ Shift
It would be up to a team led by Andrew Bell — a respected senior engineer with a black sense of humor — to put together a working unit. Throughout the fall his team grew fast. By December, engineers from Texas and China were being flown in for short, intense sprints.
Aaron Gilroy served as Bell’s air-traffic controller as parts were hand-delivered from manufacturing partners in Austria, Taiwan and China. When a key engineer quit, Craig Crawford was flown in from the Oregon office to lead the assembly of the early prototypes. The unflappable mechanical engineer has been living in a Silicon Valley hotel ever since.
On December 18, the first two prototypes to include every element of the device were brought to Jen-Hsun. There were flaws. Some were painful. Others were funny. When Jen-Hsun slid from one app to another as a room full of engineers watched, the device’s speakers let out an exaggerated ‘swish.’ Jen-Hsun laughed, dubbing it the “Kung Fu shift.”
“We need to make this perfect,” he said. The shift to full production would take place in stages. A small run of units would be put together so people inside NVIDIA could continue to pound on the design, break it and improve it.
And the project would be revealed at CES, now just 19 days away – a doable, but tough, deadline. Andrew flashed a wicked grin at his fellow NVIDIANs: “Come join me in the ‘I’m screwed cart,’ – it’s fun!”
Over the holiday break, NVIDIA’s engineers took over a small piece of floor space at a Silicon Valley contract manufacturer to assemble the units that would be shown off at CES.
At one table, circuit boards bearing NVIDIA’s soon to be unveiled mobile processor — Tegra 4 — were tested and soldered together. A few steps away Craig – the mechanical engineer who oversaw the assembly of the first prototypes – would turn over displays with practiced hands, searching for defects.
Nearby, Anshul Jain and a knot of other NVIDIA software engineers stand ready. Still more software engineers are on call (and Bell isn’t shy about calling them). It’s Anshul’s job to collect all the feedback on the software powering the device to make sure it’s ready to demo at CES, linking NVIDIA’s software and hardware efforts in real-time. The good-natured Anshul– like the others – has been working non-stop, resting only for the holiday.
What did he do for Christmas? “Slept,” he quips.
At another bench, an NVIDIA engineer snapped batteries, a display and a circuit board into the housing of the device, taking careful notes as he went. His instructions will be used to assemble tens of thousands of more units once final production begins. This is where another piece falls into place: NVIDIA has a team of ‘quick-turn’ manufacturing specialists, led by tall, laconic Navy veteran Brant Carter, who specialize in turning prototypes into products that can be built in large numbers.
There was plenty of work left to do — the frenzied sprint to prepare units for CES had only just begun. But despite some cussing, the first few units were coming together. It was shortly after Gilroy had completed his late night KFC run that Bell flipped up the device’s screen and started to fiddle with it. He grinned.
“Anyone else want to play some games?” he asked.