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Tilt Five has raised $7.5 million to build its augmented reality glasses, game board, and wand controller for playing tabletop board games in AR.
The funding is an endorsement for Tilt Five CEO Jeri Ellsworth as she applies her years of work on AR goggles to tabletop games. She hopes AR will transform our dining room tables so we can play these games without worrying we’re going to knock all of the pieces off the board.
SIP Global Partners led the round, with participation from Bitkraft Ventures, Galaxy Interactive, Logitech, and games industry veteran Ken Birdwell. SIP’s Jeffrey Smith will join Tilt Five’s board of directors.
“Presales have been very strong during the lockdown period,” Ellsworth said in an interview with GamesBeat. “We have something people are really wanting right now.”
The money follows a $1.7 million Kickstarter campaign in October 2019. Ellsworth said Tilt Five will use the money to expand its 10-person team, build partnerships, and expand available content.
Ellsworth and game developer Rick Johnson dreamed up the AR technology for CastAR while at Steam creator Valve. Then Valve opted to focus on virtual reality and spun the technology out to Technical Illusions, a company Ellsworth and Smith started. In 2013, they raised $1 million from 3,000 consumers in a Kickstarter campaign. But the company developed broader ambitions.
In 2015, the renamed CastAR raised more money from Android creator Andy Rubin; moved from Seattle to Mountain View, California; and returned the Kickstarter funds to consumers. The company brought aboard new executives and hired a game development team from Avalanche Studios, which had shut down in 2015 after Disney canceled its Disney Infinity products.
The company grew to more than 90 people but eventually ran out of runway and collapsed. Ellsworth said a bank took ownership of the assets, but she and others who believed in the technology — like cofounder Amy Herndon — bought them back. They began working on the new company in November 2017.
“We took lessons from the past, like how to market our product and be very focused on our message of tabletop gaming,” Ellsworth said.
This time, the company will focus on a more targeted and less ambitious product. By combining AR glasses, a game board, and a wand controller, Tilt Five wants to engage players in tabletop and video games in shared 3D holographic environments.
Raising funds during the pandemic wasn’t easy. The company set up a special room in its office, where it demoed its prototypes for investors.
“It’s easy to show and demonstrate with a wand, even if you’re a nongamer,” Ellsworth said. “You can learn these systems and interact directly with holograms on the tables as if they were really there.”
Players will be able to enter dynamic worlds as popular games spring to life, allowing people to explore, battle, and solve puzzles with friends on their tables — locally and remotely. The Tilt Five AR glasses will have a 110-degree field-of-view optical system, bringing immersive 3D worlds to life with vivid colors and natural depth of field, Ellsworth said.
The glasses weigh just under 95 grams (that’s a little more than 0.2 pounds), one-third the weight of typical mixed-reality headsets, and provide a comfortable experience for all-day game sessions. Tilt Five XE kits come with a 6-degrees-of-freedom wand controller that enables players to reach into and physically interact with environments and characters.
An embedded camera system tracks physical objects — like game pieces and hands — and seamlessly blends them with virtual ones. Stereo speakers and microphones allow players to immerse themselves in solo experiences or converse with friends while playing together remotely. And a unique optical system gives each player their own view into shared virtual worlds. Players can still call out to each other and see the physical world around them.
“One of our goals is to have just a constant stream of new experiences for our users,” Ellsworth said. “So when the product does go out, we want to have new experiences on a weekly basis. We are using some of the funds to incentivize third-party developers.”
Content from third-party developers will include games from Tabletopia, HappyGiant, Niffler, PlayStack, Beatshapers, Playito, Monocle Society, Deck13, GFX47, and Battle Map Studio. Ellsworth said games will span categories such as action, puzzle, role-playing games, and strategy.
Goldman Sachs estimated the augmented reality headset market is worth $6.8 billion in 2020, up 250% from a year earlier. SIP Partners invested in Tilt Five because it believes the company is taking a revolutionary approach to collaborative experiences and Ellsworth and her team have the technical smarts to get their project done.
Tilt Five has begun ramping up production and will commence shipping kits to Kickstarter backers and preorder customers over the next two quarters. More than 3,000 people are currently awaiting their shipments. Tilt Five XE kits include a pair of AR glasses, a game board, and a wand. XE Kits are $359 and are available for preorder here.
Tilt Five will also provide Social Kits, which will include three AR glasses, three wands, and a gameboard and be available later in 2021.
“Our plan was to be in production in the summertime, and we came pretty close to that, even with COVID-19,” Ellsworth said. “With the world upside down with COVID-19, everything is highly variable.”
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