A Not So Surprising Focus for Flex in the XR Realm
Dan Feinberg has been covering augmented, virtual, and mixed-reality advancements for I-Connect007 for the last few years. Flex, a well-known and respected major player in the global manufacturing industry but not a company that we previously associated with this segment, distributed a press release recently on their involvement in this realm. So we contacted them and were introduced to Eric Braddom, VP of Extended Reality (XR) Product Management. He graciously agreed to be interviewed, thus adding to our expanding coverage of the disruptive technology of augmented, mixed and/or virtual reality, or as Flex calls it, "extended reality," or XR.
Dan Feinberg: Eric, how are you?
Eric Braddom: I'm doing well; I really appreciate your time. It's a pleasure to get to talk to you today.
Feinberg: Well I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me also. This is a topic that I've been covering for a couple of years and it's something that I'm very interested in, both professionally and personally. On top of that, I did not realize that Flex was so involved with this until recently, or I would have visited you at CES. As you know, CES is crazy. You can't possibly cover it all. I've been covering CES for about 18 years, since I failed retirement.
Braddom: Yeah, it's also a fun place to be, but it's also exhausting. I'm happy to introduce the reference design team and answer your questions and talk about what we're trying to do.
Feinberg: I appreciate that. I've had a lot of experience dealing with Flex back in the early Flextronics days, and you were one of my good customers back in the Dynachem days. In recent years, I've had a couple of clients doing business with you
Braddom: You must know a lot of people here then.
Feinberg: I do. I knew some of the founders of your company back in the ‘80s. And then I've known some of your assembly folks in Mexico and Zhuhai. But more on the manufacturing side, obviously. Eric, can you tell me just a little bit about your background and what you do in your present position?
Braddom: I'm responsible for product management for the extended reality devices. I have a responsibility for the design team, and supporting the businesses inside of Flex that are entertaining AR/VR solutions. They might be looking at manufacturing engagements, they may be looking at joint design engagements, or leveraging the reference design. As you know, there are different ways that Flex engages with customers, but we provide design insight and experience, based on a lot of research on the trends, components and technologies that we can use to help customers.
Prior to coming to Flex, I was the vice president of strategy and marketing for the consumer division at TE Connectivity. Then before that, I spent many years in semiconductors, most notably with Texas Instruments in DLP™ Products. That's where I was introduced to a lot of the imaging, light field kind of technologies. And then before that I ran the video and imaging DSP business at TI.
Feinberg: How long has Flex been involved with AR, VR, and MR?
Braddom: Flex has been exploring AR in-house and developing related projects since 2014, working with companies like Atheer and Jaunt VR. Many projects we do for customers require strict confidentiality while others are public. For example, you probably saw the press release about Flex manufacturing a DAQRI product.
Feinberg: Is Flex manufacturing or planning to manufacture and market any of these products under their own name, or are they all done as an assembler and manufacturer for others?
Braddom: We don't have our own retail brand, so everything that we're doing is meant to help our customers. There's no intention here to compete with our customers. The genesis of the reference design really came about because companies in this space were having such a challenging time developing the products, getting access to the components they needed and getting support for those components, which, really, were only accessible to very high-volume cell phone manufacturers. That's one area where we can help them, but it's also very difficult even for customers that made it through the prototype stage. The prototypes weren't designed to be manufactured, and there were a lot of things that had to be redesigned. In addition, they didn't have an established supply chain that could support ramping the volume.
There was just a substantial number of challenges. If you look at all the disciplines needed to make a pair of AR glasses these days, you need not only optical mechanical engineers and optical designers, but you need people that understand eye glasses and people that understand the ergonomics of putting something on your head. You need advanced thermal simulation capability, high-speed signal analysis and modeling. It requires material science. It's very challenging, in that you need so many disciplines and competencies. And as it becomes more popular, there are customers that are just deciding for the first time that they would like to get into this, and so, for them especially, a reference design can help them get started.
Feinberg: I've had a chance to do some trials and comparisons, which I covered in a recent article. The focus was, in fact, on some of the leading VR assemblies. Of course, the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift have been out for a while, but there are several others. To me, one of the biggest things that made AR/VR take kind of a step up, not so much in the professional end but more in the gaming end of it is its inclusion and enhancement in the last Windows 10 update and the various apparently enhanced partnerships between the hardware suppliers and Microsoft. A highly valuable potential and already in use is in the professional end in some areas such as home design, medical, military training and so forth. With the Windows 10 inclusion of AR, VR, and MR into the latest operating system, particularly with the creator's edition, I've seen a lot more interest overall.
Braddom: Yes, I think you see VR for design visualization more on the business side. That's one that we see emerging—the ability to visualize your designs.
Feinberg: I noticed that you use the term extended reality, or XR, which I haven't seen used much. You've generally been using AR/VR or MR for mixed reality. What is XR referring to exactly?
Braddom: It's just a term that's used as a placeholder to represent all three of those, because a lot of people don't know the difference. As you know, AR, VR, and MR are all very different, but not a lot of people understand the differences between them. For external purposes, I use XR, but like you, I find myself saying AR/VR a lot too.
Feinberg: Right, so XR is kind of a catchall that you use.
Braddom: That's right.
Feinberg: In this realm, what are you seeing the most interest in? Is it headsets or glasses, or headsets with mics, with earphones, or what?
Braddom: Well, we have a good advantage in that we do have a broad customer base that cuts across many industries. I mentioned earlier that I support all the businesses in AR/VR. The first substantiation of the reference design is really hardening industrial enterprise applications, because that's where we see a big need and where we can add substantial value in helping customers with their designs because of the unique requirements that that market has. But at the same time, we are working with companies that have consumer applications of AR/VR, and we're working with companies that have medical applications of AR/VR. I can’t point to one and say that that is substantially bigger than the others. What's so exciting is that AR/VR is one of those technology platforms that cuts broadly across the majority of our businesses.
Feinberg: I can see in some areas, for example, medical and military, where XR could be a very disruptive technology. In things like computer gaming, I don't see it as quite as disruptive. So, again, it depends on the application.
Braddom: Yes, I think it's exciting because it can be disruptive to so many different markets and industries and services. IDC predicts that total spending on AR/VR products and services is expected to soar from $11.4 billion in 2017 to nearly $215 billion in 2021. What's interesting is looking at how many industries are developing software and applications for these devices and the kind of new business models that they're thinking about. It is very exciting and I do enjoy the fact that the application of XR is so interesting to all these different industries and markets that we service.
Feinberg: I was at CES and I saw so many different headsets and so many new devices and I found that when you talk to some of these companies, most of them, obviously, are out of Shenzhen. But when you talk to most of them, they've done a pretty decent job in developing or designing the particular device, but they have no software. They have no target market in mind; it's like they couldn't even really show off their device except for some cartoonish little game. Then they contact you later and say, "Are you going to cover us in your article?" What am I going to say? You're just another one out of a hundred more but you have no application in mind, you know?
Braddom: I understand. We have been working with Atheer to develop an interaction module for the HMD, and the interaction module is what facilitates the use of voice or gestures or using other kinds of Bluetooth wearables to interact with the system. We're working with them on that, and at the same time, they have Atheer AiR Enterprise that will ship with our reference design on a 30-day trial basis. And, of course, they have a lot of applications already in the enterprise stage. We analyzed many different use cases in our research to come up with the requirements for the reference design. I've continued to target that enterprise and industrial space because not only do we have customers that need it, but Flex also is looking to apply AR/VR technologies internally.
Feinberg: That's interesting. You talked about medical, and I'm seeing this now with things like the advances in robotic surgery, like the Da Vinci hardware. You think about the things we can do now that we couldn't even consider 10 years ago. Certainly not when I was growing up. So that is amazing stuff, particularly in medical. And then again, there's some interesting stuff in the military arena, too.
Braddom: Many doctors already use an augmented reality solution, like a Google Glass, for example, to record their interactions with the patients or to facilitate communications with an external expert. There's even an ambulance company in Chicago, called MedEx, and their technicians use augmented reality glasses so that doctors can participate on-scene with the medical technicians. I'm not an expert on their system, but there are already so many examples of AR being used in medicine. Then you think about the future where you're assisting surgeons, you're providing a new level of capability with what you can do with augmented reality. So it's very exciting and I think there will be many new applications that people haven't even considered.
Feinberg: Absolutely. I mean, when people see it, they say that it is a great idea. My wife is doing some home redesign and she got to use some mixed reality by seeing furniture and furnishings and wall coverings in an existing home. Things like that are just amazing and provide true value.
Eric, who are some of the major brand names, if you can tell me, that you're involved with?
Braddom: I'm sorry, for XR, other than those companies that I mentioned that have publicly announced relationships with Flex, like Atheer, Jaunt and DAQRI, I can't really say who’s developing with us. But as you know, since we don't have our own brand, and we don't compete with our customers, in the future they'll be announcing their own products.
Feinberg: I totally understand, but I think we can safely say there are others.
Braddom: Yes, the intention here is to have a platform so that customers can either put their name on it and take it to market, or they can borrow from the reference design for their own design. So, I have some customers who are wanting to adopt elements of the reference design. For example, they want to work with the optical modules and some of the key components, but they don't have a lot of the thermal concerns, for example, that the industrial customers have. We're able to facilitate that kind of interaction, and then I have other customers that have a need to get product to market for enterprise applications with augmented reality and they are looking more at white labeling the first-generation product while they work with us on subsequent generations.
Feinberg: Very good. Is there anything else you can tell me, or that you’d like our readers to know about?
Braddom: Well, I think there are some important considerations for the solution that we have come across in doing our research in terms of what customers in the industrial and enterprise space need. Things like 8 to 12 hours of battery life, being able to operate in a 35°C/95°F environment without burning the user and remaining comfortable on the head. Being able to wear eye glasses underneath the head mounted display (HMD). That’s important if you wear glasses daily.
Feinberg: Wearing eyeglasses while using XR headsets is a big advance for many users.
Braddom: You don't want to send everybody to the eye doctor just to get a custom adjustment. So how do you design something that can accommodate close to 100% of prospective users? We’ve designed the HMD to be Z87 safety-rated, scratch proof and dust proof, which is also very challenging, especially when you're working with the latest generation of technology. There are a lot of challenges in doing this and a lot of interesting requirements that we've uncovered for the industrial and enterprise markets that are interested in the reference design. Even making the optics and the visors clear, you know, as opposed to being dark, like sunglasses.
We're excited about it and our customers are excited because of how focused this version is on the industrial and enterprise market and some of the user requests we've addressed that haven't been addressed in other devices.
Feinberg: Very interesting. Thank you for the expanded view from the point of the designer and manufacturer. I really appreciate speaking with you and certainly please keep me on your list for announcements, and so forth. I-Connect007 comprises a group of magazines that focus on different areas such as assembly, military, circuit board fab, etc., so we have plenty of places to publish articles on a variety of topics. At the next CES I'll come by. What show will you be at next?
Braddom: Probably the Augmented World Expo (AWE), in Santa Clara in May.
Feinberg: Yes, I am going to try to get to that one.
Braddom: Alright, great, well hopefully we can meet in person at that one.
Feinberg: Thank you for the opportunity to learn more about what Flex is doing in this area. I think we agree that it is both exciting as well as disruptive in so many areas.