Postcards from the Edge: Tales from the SHIELD ‘P-Release’ Minus One Day

by Brian Caulfield

Everyone likes nice things. So when NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang pulled the very first SHIELD production unit out of its rakish carrying case at NVIDIA’s quarterly internal company meeting, he couldn’t help chuckling.

The gleaming black device – with its console-style controls, a high-definition 5-inch screen that folds up like the lid of a jewel-box, and the world’s fastest mobile chip, Tegra 4 – was put together by gaming fanatics.

SHIELD had just reached ‘p-release’  –  meaning it was ready for production, Jen-Hsun told the hundreds of assembled NVIDIANs and thousands watching the stream. “All of the buttons are exquisite,” said Jen-Hsun, who has never been afraid to grab a controller to join engineers in pickup sessions of “Borderlands 2,” as he handled the device.

SHIELD is unlike anything else on the market. Its compact body is packed with features: HDMI and micro-USB ports, an SD Card reader, WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS, a bass reflex sound system, dual analog sticks, a chunky D-Pad, twin triggers and shoulder buttons…  and it would sell for less than a premium tablet or an unlocked smartphone.

Yet it’s built to slip into a gamer’s digital life in an instant. “It’s pure Android,” Jen-Hsun said. “When you get it you’re going to turn it on and you’re going to type in your account information – and all of a sudden all the books, the music and the games you’ve purchased on your phone or your Nexus tablet — it just shows up.”

Now it’s time for SHIELD to do the same. This is the tale of the final day before SHIELD hit ‘p-release.’ And an example of how inches are just as vital to innovation as great bounds forward. Deals had been struck with Newegg, GameStop, Micro Center and Canada Computers to get SHIELD into gamer’s hands in June. It was time for NVIDIA’s manufacturing, customer service, marketing, and software teams to deliver.

Tick tock.

The big reveal: Jen-Hsun pulls SHIELD from its case.

Buttoned Down

If there’s a mission control for SHIELD, it’s in the conference room in Santa Clara where Brant – a lean, gray-haired Navy veteran – meets with 10-laptop equipped members of the ‘quick turn’ manufacturing team he leads every day at 2 o’clock.

On the white board this afternoon: a detailed schedule outlining the steps that need to be completed over the next two weeks to move SHIELD from prototype to mass production.

Glance at the board and you’ll see what’s up next: a small run of 220 units.

“Status?” Brant asks.

“We should be able to start system assembly early next week and then finish up the system testing by the end of the week,” one NVIDIAN tells him.

“We’ll probably wait for the whole run to come out to start HOT (hands-on-testing),” another adds.

“Start testing them as you get them,” Brant tells him, paper coffee cup in hand.

SHIELD only needs 10 minutes of the group’s time today.

It’s just a week until NVIDIA starts taking pre-orders for SHIELD, and Brant is about to fly out to visit the contract manufacturer assembling SHIELD.

One of the quick-turn team’s key “deliverables”: 100 pages of assembly instructions. The device’s many moving parts — the clamshell screen, triggers, directional pad, and buttons — mean assembly is more complex than bolting together a PC or tablet.

Every detail is covered, including how long each SHIELD will be charged so a gamer can pick it up and play with it the moment it’s unboxed. Everything on the new device will feel familiar, from the device’s Android software, to its thumbsticks and triggers.

A man with a plan: Brant's 'quick turn' team tracks every step in the production process.
Man with a plan: Brant’s ‘quick turn’ team tracks every step in the production process.

Pure Android, Harder Than It Looks

Making SHIELD simple to pick up and play wasn’t easy, explains David, a quiet, intense software engineer with more than a decade of experience sorting through knotting technical problems.

David latest task: checking to make sure the software NVIDIA built to help users navigate SHIELD’s screen using the console-style controls built into the device works as expected. It’s a slick addition to Android that took nearly a dozen engineers to get just right.

“This is something I think about more than ever, because it really resonates with me,” says David. It’s his job to seamlessly meld functionality that doesn’t exist on any other Android device with Google’s Android software. “It really grabs me and makes me want to think about it.”

SHIELD’s ‘Pure Android,’ software means it will work with apps and content consumers already use on their tablets and smartphones. Yet pouring Android into a device with thumbsticks and triggers meant NVIDIA has had to do plenty of work to get the look, and feel, just right.

And that’s just a tiny portion of the work done by NVIDIA’s software engineers to perfect everything from the device’s battery management to the look and feel of what appears on the screen.

David is also performing last-minute checks to make sure NVIDIA’s Android game store — TegraZone, launched in 2011 — is ready to deal with new customers. Hit a button built into the device and you’ll be able to access a store stocked with software tuned for Tegra devices. It’s yet another piece built years before that should fall into place once SHIELD launches.

At Your Service

Everyrone at NVIDIA wears ties.
NVIDIA provides tech support for gaming fanatics, from gaming fanatics. 

If something goes wrong once SHIELD ships, it will be up to NVIDIA customer care specialists like Josh to help fix it. Veteran technical support engineers like him aren’t the kind of people you find in call centers.  But cruise the halls of NVIDIA’s headquarters  and you can already find them toiling away.

Josh works behind a triple monitor setup surrounded by empty cans of sugar-free Red Bull. Behind him: an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 680 hangs out from the open chassis of a PC. On the shelf nearby, there’s a stack of five more graphics cards. His cube looks more like a scene from the “Matrix” than “Office Space.” Not a headset in site.

Josh’s boss, Peter, explains that it’s up to Josh and a group of other support specialists at NVIDIA’s headquarters to know how everything works, how it can go wrong and how it can be fixed. A passionate gamer like the rest of his staff, the NVIDIA veteran has made a career of building customer-support organizations and will often jump on a call or live chat session to help the most irate customers. “If they’re passionate, I know they care,” Peter says. “I like that.”

While NVIDIA doesn’t sell the graphics cards built using NVIDIA’s chips, Peter’s team fields a wide variety of support requests from customers who may not even know the cards they’ve purchased are built by another company.   All that customer feedback gets analyzed and dedicated program managers on Peter’s team help turn all that customer feedback into product enhancements.

To be sure, preparing for SHIELD means NVIDIA will need to step up its front-line efforts. Peter says he’s already in-sourced NVIDIA’s front-line customer service, building a team of support specialists in Bangalore and Santa Clara who will staff a 24-hour support system built into a variety of channels such as knowledgebases, web forms, live chat and forums.

Next step: hiring more people like Josh – enthusiasts able to troubleshoot the most complex problems. That will be critical when working with Android devices, where software, hardware, and services from a huge array of different vendors come together to create challenges that can’t always be worked out with a simple reboot.

What Doesn’t It Do?

Flying machine.
SHIELD plays well with everything, even drones.

One of the biggest challenges would be explaining everything SHIELD does. The evening before Jen-Hsun would announce ‘p-release,’ — NVIDIA’s marketing team huddled to talk about what to show a group of writers visiting campus for a hands-on with the final product.

Just sorting through the list of Android games that would run on the device took an hour. Thirty games to be loaded onto SHIELD, along with full library of music, and a pair of movies — “Thor,” and “Iron Man” — to be put on an SD card and plugged into SHIELD’s SD card reader.

How do you pitch a device that does everything?

Ninety minutes later, the room began to smell of over-caffeinated marketing staff. And the suggestions kept coming. Brand new gaming devices usually launch with a slim lineup of titles. With SHIELD NVIDIA’s marketers were whittling down the possibilities with a machete.

Put Facebook on it, one NVIDIAN suggested.

Twitter, another added.

Don’t forget Yelp, another insisted.

SHIELD would work with just about any Android app.

How about the client for the AR.Parrot Drone? Let the bloggers race quadrocopters around NVIDIA’s campus.

Just three days after “p-release,” the bloggers arrived to try out the final production version of SHIELD for the first time. Writers tried out some of our favorite games and movies, paired off against NVIDIA staff in multiplayer games of “Shadowgun: Dead Zone. Some even took SHIELD and the AR.Parrot drone out for a spin at NVIDIA’s campus, sending the drone zooming around the main quad.

The result was perhaps the clearest illustration of why we built SHIELD. “If you’re really looking to take your brain for a spin, you’ve got to try Shield with the Parrot AR Drone,” wrote Android Central editor-in-chief Phil Nickinson “It’s a ridiculous amount of fun.”

They had a blast. We think you will, too.