Holochess, anyone? This AR game system gives tabletop gaming a digital upgrade

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The original Star Wars launched thousands, if not millions, of dreams for the generation of kids who grew up watching it. For Jeri Ellsworth, today the CEO of augmented reality company Tilt Five, there was one moment that especially stuck out: the Dejarik scene. For non-Star Wars geeks, Dejarik — also known as holochess — is a two-player board game in which holographic creatures battle each other on a circular board. Although it’s only a tiny moment in the first Star Wars movie (it makes a reappearance in The Force Awakens), Dejarik presented a compelling vision of a holographic board game.

At some point in time, surely every kid who saw Star Wars — especially not in the 1970s and 80s when video games were just beginning their journey — wished for their own personal version of Dejarik. Maybe it was a science fiction game featuring battling monsters on a board. Perhaps it was a sports game, in which holographic football players would sprint across your desk to score virtual touchdowns.

Whatever it was, the idea of a hologram-based gaming experience to be enjoyed from the comfort of your home was the stuff science fiction dreams were made of. We wanted it badly. Some just happened to want it a bit more than others.

“I always thought it was a really cool idea,” Ellsworth told Digital Trends.

Jump forward to the present day, and Ellsworth might finally have brought the dream of holographic board gaming to life. Last week, Tilt Five unveiled its AR glasses-based tabletop gaming system. Rather than being general purpose augmented reality aimed at doing, well, everything, Tilt Five is focused squarely on providing a compelling gaming experience — courtesy of AR glasses, a wand-like controller, a board, and a whole bunch of smart tech that’s able to do impressive things like recognize individual cards and board pieces and respond accordingly.

In the process, Ellsworth believes (and hopes) that she is at the forefront of a whole new era for home gaming.

The best of video games and tabletop gaming

“The core idea for this project was what if you could take the tried-and-true game mechanics and physical interactions that you love about board games and blend them with the things you love about video games?” she enthused. “This is a really powerful concept that could break down a lot of the barriers that currently keep people from playing board games so often — or maybe even at all.”

To play Tilt Five games, players don special augmented reality glasses. These are described as being the lightest on the market, weighing just 85 grams, with a 110 degree field of view optical system that’s able to cover the entirety of its associated game board. The glasses boast HD micro projectors and two tracking cameras: one for head tracking and the other for tracking tangible objects, including playing cards, tokens, figurines, and even hands.

Using these glasses and a special game wand, players will be able to enjoy an assortment of tabletop games, ranging from licensed RPGs to party games. Games companies that have already signed on as partners include the likes of Fantasy Grounds, which makes a virtual tabletop app titles such as Dungeons & Dragons, Call of Cthulhu and Pathfinder. (Sadly there’s no Star Wars license just yet, meaning an authentic Dejarik experience remains out of reach!) Tilt Five is currently raising funds on Kickstarter, with prices for the finished hardware starting at $299. Shipping is planned for June 2020.

“When you’re in complete stealth trying to put a project together like this, it’s just agonizing,” Ellsworth said. “You want to scream from the top of the mountain about this amazing thing that we’re building. Now we’re at this point where we can finally do that.”

Here be treasure

It’s easy to see where the excitement for Tilt Five comes from. There’s no doubt that tabletop gaming is currently going through a renaissance, if not its first true golden age. Thousands of new titles are released each year. There has been explosive growth in the number of game bars and cafes around the world, dedicated to bringing together tabletop gamers wanting to play their favorite titles. Overall, the global board games market is anticipated to reach values of more than $12 billion by 2023. Of this, the U.S. represents the largest piece of the pie.

Video games are pretty darn big, too. The video game industry is the world’s largest entertainment industry, outstripping both the movie and music industries by a significant margin. Last year, the video game industry generated a shade under $135 billion. That number marked almost an 11% increase over 2017.

Add in the excitement over augmented reality (Apple CEO Tim Cook has described it as so “profound” a technology that, in a few years, we won’t be able to imagine life without it) and maybe a pinch of 1980s nostalgia, and you have a conflation of concepts which could have the makings of an enormous hit. If this was a Venn diagram, made up of three or overlapping bubbles, the center space occupied by Tilt Five might as well read “here be treasure.”

“I was a big fan of the [Nintendo] Wii,” Ellsworth said. “When it came out, the Wii embodied this amazing approachable gaming experience where grandpa and grandma could play with the grandkids — and everyone in between. I think we’ve captured that with our system as well.”

Adding more utility

Bringing together different popular concepts isn’t always a winner, of course. The majority of homes have fridges and toasters, but no-one is lining up to build (or buy) refrigerator-toasters. The key to this kind of convergence is not just to combine, Swiss Army knife-style, multiple gadgets in one place, but to do so in a way that gives both added utility. This is what Ellsworth thinks she can pull off with Tilt Five.

“When you look at video games, there are some things that are missing that board games can excel at,” she said. “There’s nothing like sitting across the table from your friends and playing cooperative or head-to-head games, where you can see each other eye-to-eye. With video games, you’re sitting on the couch staring off into space. Even if you’re playing a two-player game, you’re not really that engaged with your friend.”

As to what video games can bring to tabletop gaming, Ellsworth points to things like “save game” features, training and rules assistance, and — potentially most excitingly — network play. Imagine the board game equivalent of Twitch. Got your wallet out yet? That’s what the creators of Tilt Five are likely salivating over.

There’s also the possibility of making tabletop gaming more immersive. “We’re going to be this storytelling tool,” she said. “It’s going to be phenomenal.” Ellsworth gives the example of a Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master being able to choose just the right moment to unleash an AR monster onto an unsuspecting party of players. Or describing an eerie mist settling across a village, before passing his or her hand over the table to create that weather effect. The possibilities are truly mind-boggling.

Going to Kickstarter

“If we had been doing some other kind of AR project, we probably wouldn’t have gone to Kickstarter,” Ellsworth acknowledged. “But tabletop games are huge on Kickstarter right now. The audience was there for us. It made so much sense to go to a platform to market to tabletop gamers and video gamers. It was an amazing marketing tool for us.”

In some ways, Tilt Five is an outlier. Many of the entrepreneurs who take to Kickstarter do so due to a lack of other options. For example, they may have a great idea, and a superb proof-of-concept, but no access to venture capitalists. There might be a lack of track record. That’s something that doesn’t really apply to Ellsworth and Tilt Five. As the company’s press release notes, its founding team has “decades of experience designing and building ground-breaking consumer technology products for leading companies including Google, Valve, and others.”

Jeri Ellsworth has, by her own admission, been in Silicon Valley for “eons.” Her CV is packed with job titles such as R&D Hardware Lead at Valve Corporation, the company behind Steam and franchises like Half-Life, Counter-Strike, and more.

tilt five tabletop video gaming ar system

For the past February 2013 through September 2017, she was the founder of CastAR. This ambitious AR startup created a pair of augmented reality glasses able to project images onto a reflective mat. Much like Tilt Five, users were able to interact with these AR images by way of a wand. However, CastAR went bust. Ellsworth said that there were multiple reasons for this being the case (including the arrival of outside executives who “wound up crashing the company into the ground”).

But the core team thought it was too good an idea to let go. Narrowing their scope to focus specifically on gaming, they got together to try again. “A bunch of us pooled our money and purchased all the patents and bits and pieces,” Ellsworth said. “We used that as the foundation for this new company.”

What happens next?

The result is Tilt Five, which Ellsworth is convinced arrives at the perfect time for AR. “I think the industry’s been through the hype phase and the trough of despair,” she said, invoking the language of Gartner’s hype cycle. “Now we’re in the growth period, where the true utility of the product can start to show up.”

As ever, we offer our usual warnings about the potential perils of crowdfunding — where products can be delayed or sometimes not show up at all. Tilt Five isn’t the first time a company has explored combining traditional tabletop gaming with augmented reality. But it’s certainly one of the more intriguing. Judging by how it smashed through its fundraising goal on Kickstarter within days of launching, clearly a lot of people feel the same way. Now it just remains to be seen if Tilt Five can carve out a niche in a field that’s got some major players at work.

“I don’t think budget determines whether you’re going to succeed or not,” Ellsworth said. “We’ve seen that time and time again. So I’m not worried about some company that’s raised $2 billion versus us. I think if you’ve packaged technologies with the right user experience and content, that’s how you rise to the top.”

For the good of our collective childhood dreams, and finally getting that holographic tabletop gaming system so many have wanted, we’re keeping our fingers crossed for the best.

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