Tilt Five, a Silicon Valley-based startup that took to Kickstarter to makes its AR idea a reality, has joined the $1 million crowdfunding club.
It now lives with the likes of Oculus Rift, Bragi Dash and the Avegant Glyph as a Kickstarter project that has convinced thousands of backers to part with big bucks. This time for a tabletop gaming system that uses a pair of augmented reality glasses to bring your board games to life.
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The tech minds behind Tilt Five are largely the same ones that brought us CastAR, another crowdfunding success story that we covered back in 2016.
Now that it has considerably more money than it aimed to raise, Tilt Five's team is hoping to learn from previous mistakes to ensure it hits its estimated June 2020 delivery date.
Rising from the CastAR ashes
The concept behind Tilt Five is straightforward, even if the tech behind it is the opposite: to bring augmented reality into your home, and use it to improve your experience of tabletop gaming with vivid visuals and graphics.
The idea has been pursued by the startup through multiple companies. CastAR was the first attempt, and while it made huge leaps technologically, things fizzled out.
"It's not my first time doing this," says Jeri Ellsworth, Tilt Five's cofounder who also worked on CastAR and previously worked as an electrical engineer at Valve. "I learnt a lot of lessons before, and as in life you gotta get a couple of black eyes along the way."
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CastAR exploded onto the tech and videogame scene in 2013 with a Kickstarter campaign that gathered more than $1 million in funding, which at that point was a huge sum for a crowdfunded effort.
The concept was near-identical - consumer-grade AR tech for the tabletop gaming scene, and was similarly alluring. The startup flew out of the blocks, attracting funding and investment.
"We built units, and we shipped hundreds of units out, which got a bunch more attention" she said. "And then we moved to Silicon Valley, and we ended up raising money from a venture capitalist down here, who immediately said, 'Love your product, but you need to go in a totally different direction.'"
That marked the start of a change of fortunes for CastAR, as Ellsworth expounds. What had been a project driven by enthusiasm and fandom, became consumed by the need to turn profit and become fully monetised. Executives joined CastAR in management positions, and "it destroyed the identity of our company", says Ellsworth.
In 2017, CastAR finally burned out, and became a cautionary tale of sorts, about the danger of crowdfunding successes becoming too ambitious, or flying too close to the sun.
Ellsworth became the new CEO of Tilt Five, aiming to provide the leadership that CastAR lacked in its latter days, and to ensure that the same mistakes aren't made again. What that means in practice is that the business should be empowered to only take money on terms it accepts.
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"There has been money on the table that we've walked away from" Ellsworth tells us. "Because they wanted to change up our leadership. There are codewords that I've learned along the way."
"One that I hear from investors, which makes me run away from them, is 'adult supervision'. Which, first of all, is a little insulting. It's also code for them having buddies that they want to bring in. We're just not going to participate in that kind of buddy network again."
Having established that principle, that Tilt Five would control its own destiny, Ellsworth and team had to decide a few more variables. Firstly, how were they going to aim to disrupt the market?
"For our target audience, we had a choice, right? We could go really hard on the videogames side," she explains. "We actually had these discussions. Like, do we take on Xbox? Do we say that we're going to replace your Xbox one day. Is that our marketing position?"
"So, we considered that, and no, we can't go up against Microsoft. They've got pretty much a big macho PC built into this set-top box, you can't compete with that. So, then, we took a step back. Like, okay, can we take cardboard and plastic board games and make them so amazing that it blows people's minds? It's, like, yeah - we can."
What is a tabletop AR system?
Hence Tilt Five as it exists now - a tabletop gaming system that brings board games to life, and allows for remote parties to play together in much the same way as a modern games console. It's comprised of a set of glasses for users to wear, plus a wand controller, and a blank game board that acts as a canvas for the technology to project its graphics onto.
Each pair of those glasses plugs into a compatible computing device, be it a smartphone (Android at launch, with iOS support a planned update), laptop or desktop. That device determines what level of fidelity and graphical complexity the system then presents.
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"We can track physical objects and then blend them with digital graphics," says Ellsworth. "You put your dragon on the table, a physical toy or miniature, and it can breathe virtual fire. You can place a card on the table, and that can spawn a wizard that shows up in your scene and starts interacting directly."
Users can then play games, be they board games whose manufacturers have worked to sync up with Tilt Five, or games designed specifically for the platform. There are a range of supported games already, including Fantasy Grounds, a platform that means the all-important Dungeons & Dragons can work with Tilt Five systems.
That means a dungeon master could look through their Tilt Five glasses and see a game board completely open, with all details displayed. Meanwhile, their players might only see the areas they've explored, unable to see traps awaiting them further into a dungeon. It's a beguiling idea.
But, going back to the hardware, Tilt Five's decision to not compete with the gaming big boys for the mainstream market shines through in the very design of the system. "From the beginning, we designed the system so that it's super low-friction."
"So, there's a lot of other technology out there, like AR and VR systems that are usually pretty involved. Other AR systems are insanely expensive, like $3,000, $3,500 and you have really limited use-cases."
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Instead, Tilt Five is intended to be welcoming and encouraging - with a look and feel that isn't aggressive or excessively technological.
With that in mind, the startup decided to go for a niche-first market approach. Its technology would be modestly priced, starting from $299 on Kickstarter, and would aim initially at niche audiences, content to spread slowly rather than take on unsustainable growth or ambition. In the first instance, that means board game enthusiasts and those considering getting into tabletop gaming.
The AR road ahead
Tilt Five's outing on Kickstarter has been a resounding success - it's closed its campaign at more than triple the total that it was looking for, again breaking the $1 million barrier without much sweat. That didn't come as a surprise, says Ellsworth.
Tilt Five had been demo-ing the tech for months before the campaign launched, she explains. "People were loving it, so we knew that all of these things that we'd hypothesised, about the approachability and comfort, and experience, were working and resonating."
With that campaign concluded, units will ship out in 2020 continuing all the way through to August, since so many orders have come in.
Tilt Five, and Ellsworth, will try to find its tech a wider audience over time, but aims to stick the pattern of exploring niche areas first - in fact, she believes this is how AR more widely will spread. "It's going to be niche markets that expand on other niche markets on top of other niche markets until it becomes ubiquitous."
The roadmap, in the broadest terms, is there for them: "The way my team and I envision it, first we have people enjoying themselves around the table. Second, we lift people off the table, get them moving around their homes and offices and doing additional augmentation. Third, the end-goal, is where the AR glasses are super lightweight, and they're wandering around the world, completely augmenting everything."
That's almost the definition of ambition - she sees Tilt Five as a trusted part of the AR event horizon. To get there, it will have to come good on avoiding the issues that plagued CastAR.
For now, though, the future looks pretty bright for Tilt Five.