The Open House Roller Coaster: Laggy laptops and the power of pianos.

“I know! I’ll print sample pages and storyboard what moments would look like and put them up around the room, with an explanation of the project. At this point it’s either that or head for the hills, as there’s no way the demo is going to work!”

It was T minus 7 or so hours until my first public demo of my first prototyped project, one our team had been working on for a little over a month.

While still rough around the edges, I was pleased with the way the demo looked during development at home. The problem was heat – my dev laptop was surfing the edge of what it could crank out and in the higher temperatures at the VR / AR Hub, that translated directly into lag – monstrous, flow-killing lag.

I should back up.

A month ago Dan Burgar and Alex Chuang invited me to participate in a great opportunity: an open house featuring a dozen or so VR / AR companies that this year’s TED conference attendees would be at, followed by a VIP group and a round of folks from the general public. If we had a project, we’d have space to demo it for 6 hours to an amazing audience.

Since joining the VR / AR Hub, Dan and Alex have been amazing, with Alex providing me with excellent mentorship and access to mentors, and Dan providing fantastic opportunities like this and last week’s VEC Career Fair.

At this stage the Tonglen project was a new idea, stemming from my own interests in how to use VR in conjunction with meditation, and conversations with Amy Dyck around potential collaboration on an as-yet-to-be-determined interactive project centering on grief and loss. Our team had already formed (I was delighted that Maia Kumari Gilman and Claire Roberts were enthusiastic about working with Amy and I) and for about a week we’d been discussing what it might look like and making an early mock-up in VR.

A month felt very ambitious – the sort of timeline that left me fairly sure there would be some panic involved at various stages, but that also seemed feasible. And the project, with its focus on compassion and focusing on the suffering of others, tied in well to the “Bigger than Us” theme of the TED Conference. I took about 10 minutes to mull it over and responded with an enthusiastic yes.

There’s nothing like a tight deadline to throw sharp light onto the needs of a project, and our pace went from “exploratory” to somewhere between “expedited” and “Excelsior!” Amy envisioned the Talismans at the heart of the experience, Maia designed elegant, subtle, structures for us to use and held the overall environment in mind, Claire synthesized all of our ideas, sketches, hand wavings and discussion into great assets to use within unity, and I focused on the overall experience / flow of the experience and took care of the code & build.

Banging Rocks projects are all about collaboration and jumping out of our “job description” silos, so the four of us were all very involved in the various aspects of the projects, jumping in wherever insight, inspiration or caution led us. My friend, colleague and trainer in facilitation Tree Bressen had drummed into me the difference in process and result you get when group members are encouraged to bring their whole selves to bear rather than leaving everything but their intellect and job description at the door. This “whole self” approach is one of the pillars I’m building Banging Rocks on.

There tends to be a natural pulse to projects like this – ideas fly around and cluster into features, wild experimentation ensues, followed by tests, bug fixes, reality checks and triage. Approaching the date for the open house, we were awash in the detritus from a few pulses, and as I tested different combinations of ideas I tried to determine which features were feasible to have up and running by April 16th.

I tend to do most of my development at home, and our first time trying it out onsite was when Claire and I were meeting with Lucila McElroy, Education Program Coordinator at Kadampa Meditation Center and friend of Maia, who outside of her formal role has been helping us understand the traditions our VR project is based on, and whose guidance has been helping us shape things. We were meeting to discuss the project overall and particularly a few areas where our project diverges from the Tonglen tradition, to see if they made sense and were appropriate or whether they were problematic.

The demo wouldn’t run. At first I thought it was just basic lag, but as I hacked away at the other processes running on the laptop, I realized a demo would be impossible. And then it hit that this was the space we’d be in for the open house.

Flash forward to the 15th, and to me spending a good portion of my final troubleshooting and feature addition day racing around town looking for solutions. One cooling pad later (still totally laggy), and after stopping by London Drugs (would a humidifer work), Staples (would a fan work) and Best Buy (our small air conditioning units aren’t in yet, and NO we don’t rent equipment out you weirdo), I was desperate – hence the “I’ll just print it on paper” idea. I headed back to the Hub despondent.

The key to it working was jamming. One of the things I love about the Hub’s location on West Hastings is that the sheer density of awesome things within a block or two’s radius is staggering, especially after acclimatizing for the last decade to Langley’s spread. Among the features is a public piano in a square nearby. I headed down to clear my head a bit. I’d listened to one or two people play when a guy sat down and started playing the most exquisite classical music. He was amazing, pulling nuance out of a piano geared towards simpler fare.

I had mixed, intense feelings. Here was a fellow I’d be happy to have paid for a ticket to listen to playing his heart out with most of the square’s inhabitants unmoved. I’d come down to belt out a few tunes with my jamming-with-friends level skills, and was delighted but demoralized by this fellow’s mastery. Imposter syndrome hit hard – what had possibly made me think I was up to the task of presenting a homebrew VR project we’d assembled at breakneck speed to a world-class audience?

Then he ceded the piano to the woman I’d been sitting beside listening. A bit tipsy, but skilled and passionate, she played a few pieces, and when she started in on “Let it Be” I joined in, singing. The classical fellow, the woman and her partner and I began talking, sharing time on the piano, singing and enjoying each other’s company. And it hit me – this is what it was all about: joyfully sharing and connecting over something we all loved. In this case music. In tomorrow night’s case, VR.

I’d find a way through the lag and get things tied together. We’d make it work. Would it have the polish of the other pieces being shown – no. And that was okay, we’re a nascent company presenting a prototype of an innovative project. And like motley pianists connecting over my rusty rendition of “Piano Man” in the public square, we’d find the folks who are project resonated with.

Back up at the Hub, I settled into the work – trim, simplify, optimize. By 5am things were promising enough that I was confident we could kludge our way through the demonstration and give people a sense of what the Tonglen experience was meant to be like. I caught an hour’s sleep before the final builds, tests, info sheets and prep for folks to arrive.

Things were working reasonably smoothly. Mind you … it was also cooler that night, and there’d be a lot of bodies warming the place up during the Open House.

Next – The Main Event.

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