Fractional XR

Fractional XR has been on my mind for much of the past year. It’s time to talk about it.

But first, I need to acknowledge just how fast time flies. It’s been far too long since I last wrote a blog post. And this one will be relatively short as I’m about to present on a virtual panel for AWE 2020. I’ll post a link to that when it becomes available.

My focus lately has been on what I’m calling Fractional XR, or XR Lite, if you prefer (I don’t, but that’s another story).

 

Do we really need another XR term?

I would argue that Fractional XR isn’t another term, it’s simply a clarification of subset for an existing term. You can argue that I’m being pedantic, but that’s the advantage of a one-way conversation!

The truth is that most of us in the XR industry get very hung up on field of view, graphical quality and other technical specifications. This is particularly true in Augmented Reality.

I’ve been guilty of this myself. The latest headset comes out and the immediate reaction is to focus on its flaws.

The problem is that we tend to forget about use cases.

We’ve traded a focus on what the tech should do, for an obsession with what the tech could be. That isn’t healthy, for us or for the broader future of XR.

There still isn’t a universal killer use case for Augmented or Virtual Reality. But more on that later.

However, my assertion is that there are many useful things that can be achieved with fractional AR/VR/XR systems. And that’s what this post is about.

 

What is Fractional XR?

Since I made this term up (as far as I’m aware), I get to define it.

It’s quite simple. A Fractional XR system doesn’t have every feature we obsess about, but still delivers many of the benefits. And they do it at much lower cost.

Here are two examples of Fractional XR tools.

 

Bose Frames

Bose Frames deliver an audio only AR experience.

What does that mean? Frames can provide real-time headtracking data and audio. That’s it. But they only cost $200 USD.

With some creative thought, Frames can be put to good use in training and learning scenarios. This is especially true if you combine them with other devices like a tablet or smartwatch.

 

Tilt 5 AR Tabletop Gaming

Tilt5 is one of my all time favorite Kickstarter projects. It’s an Augmented Reality gaming system designed for tabletop games.

The design is both elegant and clever. The system has two components: a retro-reflective game board and special glasses. The game board gets placed on a table. Just like a reflective road marker, or a cat’s eye, it reflects any light that shines directly on it. The glasses have built in pico-projectors that project left and right eye views of the game. The board reflects the light from each player’s glasses back to that player. The end result is that each player only sees their view of the game.

Fantastic!

Tilt5 enables low cost, multi-user AR and the primary tradeoff is that the experience is limited to a table top.

Astonishingly, the per user price is about one tenth of a Hololens. During the Kickstarter campaign, a 3 player system cost less than $900. This doesn’t include the PC needed to run the system, but it’s an impressively affordable solution.

There are many business applications of Augmented Reality that would be very useful in a tabletop setting. Think of the possibilities for simulation and data visualization in the boardroom or other meetings!

 

Unicorn Hunting

The XR industry needs to stop waiting for a unicorn product. It’s been nearly a decade and we are still pretty far away from an all-singing, all-dancing magic wearable headset at an affordable price.

Yes, a lot of progress has been made. But the truth is that all of the current crop of devices, especially AR devices, have significant challenges.

We need to move on. The industry as a whole needs to get deploying solutions to real problems. And I think the best way to do that is through Fractional XR. Stop waiting for that unicorn, and go after something real.

The Killer Use Case for XR

I’ll get into this more in another post, but the simple truth is that we have no killer use case for XR today.

There are lots of good use cases, but none are “killers” in the way desktop publishing was for the Mac, or Visicalc/Excel for PCs in general… Or Facebook/Twitter/Instagram etc for Social Networking.

If I had to guess, I think it will play out as follows.

In the near term, the value add will be incremental. I think XR will follow a very similar path to smart speakers.

Smart speakers have no one killer app, but they do add a lot of incremental value. Having owned several for a few years now, I would miss the device if I no longer had it. But of course, the smart speaker only costs a fraction of a typical XR system, so it’s easier to justify your investment. 

Fractional XR solves the cost problem. That reduces the burden placed on the return on investment. And that makes it easier to justify.

 

In Conclusion

XR needs to focus on use cases, especially in the enterprise. We need to stop waiting for the perfect unicorn system and starting deploying systems that deliver a return on investment and solve real problems. For the foreseeable future, I believe Fractional XR systems are the best way to do that.