Seeing Clearly: XR Headsets and Flex’s Reference Design at AWE
At the recently concluded Augmented World Expo (AWE) in Santa Clara, California, Flex invited I-Connect007 to attend an event where they presented an update on their XR progress since the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January in Las Vegas, Nevada. At this year’s CES, they announced the launch of an extended reality (XR) reference design for the next generation of XR headsets. As the “sketch-to-scale” solutions provider, as they describe themselves, that designs and builds “intelligent products for a connected world,” they have now introduced an augmented reality (AR or, as we now call it, XR) reference design to reduce time to market for companies wishing to make and market XR devices.
As we increase our coverage of megatrends, and because we consider XR to be one of the more interesting and growing industry segments, we were happy to attend AWE. In doing so, we gained significant insight into the development process used by Flex for this segment.
The Flex AR reference design is a complete, virtually market-ready product specification, including a head-mounted display (HMD), an external processing unit (EPU), and a gesture-based software interface to manage interaction between the virtual world and the hardware. A company wishing to enter the XR market can use the Flex AR reference design instead of developing their own AR hardware. Companies can make modifications and tweaks to the reference design, but by using what is now available from Flex, they would significantly reduce product development costs and quickly scale manufacturing. Basically, once they have decided to do so, they can quickly and economically enter the market with a quality system.
In addition, by using a reference design from a company such as Flex, companies can avoid the challenge of assembling a team of experts in hardware, design, optics, and thermal issues. While many companies may have such a team, others may not have enough experts to enable the design in a timely manner. In addition, many may not have the resources for their teams to design state-of-the-art human machine interfaces (HMIs) or head-up/head-mounted displays (HUDs or HMDs). This may be true for anyone wishing to enter or expand into a new market, but it may be especially true for a startup or skunkworks project at a larger company. If this is the case, it is probable that a reference design could give you a leg up in a rapidly advancing area of technology—what isn’t rapidly advancing these days—and make the difference between success or failure due to being a little late to market with a design slightly past its prime.
While this all makes sense, a company considering market entry or a next-generation product announcement has to ask about using a reference design as a foundation: “Is this platform significant enough to allow us to compete in the areas of performance, usability, and quality?” After listening to Flex and their key partners in this endeavor—Qualcomm, Atheer, and Lumus—and having a chance to see the product, ask questions, actually use the resultant reference hardware, and mentally compare it to others I have used in the last few months based on usability, comfort, response, and quality, my opinion is yes, Flex’s platform does allow for these things.
Now, let me describe the Flex reference design and the features and abilities available to companies entering or looking to expand into the XR megatrend as presented to us by Eric Braddom, VP of XR solutions for Flex, Amar Dhaliwal, senior VP of marketing and sales for Antheer, Sivan Iram, VP of business development for Lumus, and Patrick Costello, senior director of business development at Qualcomm.
The Flex XR reference platform incorporates cutting-edge technology from its partners, including the Snapdragon 835 mobile platform from Qualcomm, designed to deliver full-color, high-definition 1080p AR experiences. The Snapdragon 835 draws 25% less power than previous models by using an advanced 10-nanometer design. Atheer Inc., a leading provider of AR solutions, supplies the AR interaction module and enterprise software support. The design also incorporates new OE Vision optics from Lumus, which is a high-resolution (1920 X 1080), top-down configured transparent display incorporating the most desired specs for advanced immersive AR headsets. Some highlights of the display include true see-through optics in a compact form factor showing lifelike images in full daylight conditions.
Using a reference design may be the best solution for any company looking to deploy a complete AR solution with minimal development costs and an accelerated time to market. It seems to be an option that any company planning to enter the XR market should consider.
The following section includes additional information provided to us at the presentation regarding the uses, drivers, and barriers to overcome at this point in the evolution of the XR market.
The industrial market is ready for AR glasses. The fastest-growing area within the AR market is for HMDs in industrial applications, particularly in the fields of healthcare, logistics, manufacturing, and other industries that deploy field technicians. Companies in these markets are looking for ways to support hands-free work and remote-expert access for applications like service and repair, remote assistance, work instruction, and logistics and fulfillment.
Total spending on XR products and services is expected to soar from almost $12 billion in 2017 to nearly $215 billion in 2021, according to the International Data Corporation (IDC) research firm. AR headsets alone are on track to account for more than $30 billion in revenue by 2021.
Until now, there have been few options that meet industrial needs/wants of 8−12 hours of battery life with a design that does not block the wearer’s peripheral view. Moreover, AR devices used today for industrial applications are not ready for harsh industrial environments. Meeting these needs requires excellent design capabilities, production experience, and a mastery of the supply chain.
Flex AR reference design is industrial grade XR designed to meet the rigorous demands of enterprise and industrial users. The HMD device is Z87 safety-rated, splash- and dust-proof, and designed to survive drops from six feet. Their selected partners, as previously mentioned, offer some of the best and latest technologies and innovations.