Jungle (Note)book: How a VR-Ready Laptop Can Take You to the Lost City of El Mirador

by David Weinstein

No roads lead there. Reaching it requires an arduous, two-day trek through dense Guatemalan jungle, or flying over the treetops in a helicopter that’s been stripped down to have the range for the long round trip. Yet the more than 2,000-year-old city of El Mirador is central to our understanding of Mayan culture.

The trip to the sprawling archaeological site — nestled amid the rolling hills and lush vegetation of the tropical forest — is about to get a lot easier, thanks to an ambitious project that uses our mobile GPUs to make a visit to El Mirador as simple as strapping on a VR headset.

Global Heritage Fund, an international conservancy, has supported conservation at the site for over 10 years. It’s joining forces with Realities.io, a startup developing a platform for virtual tourism, and Qwake, a digital media company, to raise awareness of their efforts at the site by bringing El Mirador to VR.

It’s a project that required an adventurous soul — David Finsterwalder, CTO of Realities.io — and some serious computing power. Finsterwalder had to make a series of scans of the location, and then process them with photogrammetry onsite to create a full 3D immersive environment.

“The importance of viewing the 3D content onsite can’t be overstated, especially with a remote location like El Mirador,” Finsterwalder said. “If you can’t look at it onsite, you run the risk of traveling all the way back home — no short distance in this case — only to find you’re a couple of shots short.”

To do enough preprocessing to view his scans while on location, Finsterwalder brought along the industry’s first professional-class mobile workstation. The MSI WT72 is the first NVIDIA VR Ready professional laptop. It’s equipped with the NVIDIA Quadro M5500, the world’s fastest mobile GPU.

VR Ready MSI WT72 workstation
Ready for adventure and VR: The MSI WT72 workstation

The portability of the MSI laptop, and the graphics power of the Quadro M5500, let Finsterwalder do his preprocessing onsite. That enabled him to determine whether he’d captured enough images and see if they could be aligned.

“I was able to process tens of millions of polygons and show the archaeologists and members of the Global Heritage Fund what I could accomplish in just 30 minutes,” he said. “I was able to quickly assess whether I had captured enough photos, if I had enough detail, and to see if it could all stitch together or whether I needed more images — all while running on battery power.”

Plus, he was able to show the Global Heritage Fund and the archaeology team their VR experience right in the middle of the jungle, using the laptop and an HTC Vive.

Discover El Mirador for Yourself

Soon, you’ll be able to visit a temple in the city  yourself by grabbing an HTC headset and installing Realities for Steam on your PC — no helicopter ride required. The VR experience will also be used by the Global Heritage Fund to help raise funds for its work.