A Not So Surprising Focus for Flex in the XR Realm


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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?

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