More than an investment: Sphere shows the metaverse has a business angle too!

Gayathri (G) Radhakrishnan , Ning Khang Lee | March 2022

The augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) market segment has a perception problem … well, in some ways. When AR or VR are mentioned, there’s a good chance listeners instantly imagine recreational uses. Think of friends venturing out for a virtual scavenger hunt on their mobile phones or a gamer with a headset virtually conquering a metaverse.

These uses are real, but there’s so much more. Increasingly, real and productive business use cases are augmented by XR (extended reality). In fact, our investment in Sphere was driven by real challenges we wanted to tackle on our manufacturing floor.

What led to our partnering with Sphere?

Prior to the pandemic, Micron’s Smart Manufacturing organization was evaluating labor productivity solutions specifically using AR and mixed-reality approaches. While we searched for possible solutions, we were also aware of the broad exposure that the Micron Ventures team had in this market domain. After an initial call, we joined forces to thoroughly vet companies and innovative solutions that could meet Micron’s needs and set us up for success well into the future.

Choosing Sphere as the ideal partner to address some of the unique challenges presented by a semiconductor manufacturing operation took intensive, concentrated efforts. The deep vetting process included evaluating multiple software solutions for best technology, robustness, roadmap and cost. Sphere has more than a point product and vision for the next five to 10 years: it has a roadmap that evolves to match needs for operations, scale and security.

How has the collaboration paid off?

After months of collaboration with Sphere on a solution, we’ve yielded excellent results — so much so that we’re now looking at expansion plans. The initial implementation running today is a remote expert-assistance system. Sphere provides a level of “over the shoulder” virtual support that has dramatically reduced tool downtime. Since the start of the project, the teams estimate that they have avoided over 3,000 hours of machine downtime. This was not only helpful during COVID-19 travel restrictions but will become our first line of defense for complex troubleshooting tools that need external expertise from our equipment partners or internal expertise from sister sites.

We’re now in the pilot phase with AR-assisted operation and maintenance procedures. Early results indicate fewer errors in maintenance activities, allowing us to squeeze more efficiency from our massive and costly machines. Beyond this, we are also engaged with the construction team to evaluate using this technology to drive cost efficiencies by reducing the number of change orders during fab construction.

What’s so appealing about the Sphere solution?

Three main points make the Sphere solution very specific and appealing:

  1. Security – Micron works with equipment from several cutting-edge vendors, and our process is highly customized. Any video streaming out of the fab needs to meet our internal security standards. For example, features on Sphere form a “virtual curtain,” making it easy to maintain the confidentiality of all parties. We are migrating all Sphere services to be hosted on our private cloud, mitigating this risk even further.
  2. Completeness – Sphere provides AR solutions that are not “static” workflows. They support robust machine vision, or the possibility of “seeing” the machine in the space and performing anomaly detection to reduce waste.
  3. Ecosystem – Sphere has done a great job of building out their ecosystem. As a result, their solution enables a broader set of capabilities to meet customer needs – for example an auto converter that can convert thousands of standard operating procedures (SOPs) in AR format instead of manual conversion. Sphere impressed us for other reasons as well

As it turns out, Sphere is unique in another way. As an investor, Micron not only looks for robust technology but also for a resounding vote of customer confidence. In the case of Sphere, we got that from Micron’s Smart Manufacturing team and from its other customers. Sphere is in a compelling market space that really makes it stand out among peers. For this reason, it was important for Micron to be a strategic part of the story.

We on the Ventures team appreciated that Sphere was focusing on key market segments and offering the strongest and most intuitive software platform in terms of technology, performance and price. In a short period and with limited resources, the company has seen exceptionally strong product-market fit. It has a number of leading enterprise customers, with plentiful opportunities to expand services with existing customers and recruit new customers.

These are some of the attributes that were most appealing to us as an investor and a customer:

  • Single comprehensive platform for multiple use cases, including solutions partners capable of seamlessly switching between functions without changing platforms.
  • Forward-looking product roadmap that reflects the spatial computing capabilities of the latest generation of hardware.
  • 3D asset pipeline to import customer data (CAD and 3D) to be rendered on mixed-reality devices
  • Support for digital collaboration and interaction based on mixed reality
  • Inspection of models in real-life sizes with mixed reality
  • Hardware-agnostic solution that can be integrated into common enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.

It’s an exciting time in the world of AR and VR. Thinking about all the cool opportunities that will be a part of the buzzy “metaverse” experiences is certainly compelling. But enterprise metaverse is here today, with plenty of real business opportunities, here and now. This interesting collaboration has provided a clear and meaningful lesson in how a view to the future can influence the present.

Senior Director, Corporate Development

Gayathri Radhakrishnan

G is with Micron Ventures, investing from our AI fund. She invests in startups that use AI and ML to solve critical problems in manufacturing, health care, automotive and beyond. She brings 20 years of multidisciplinary experience across product management, product marketing, corporate strategy, M&A and venture investments.

Director, Smart Mfg & AI, Labor Production

Ning Khang Lee

NK leads the productivity pillar of Micron’s Smart Manufacturing team, identifying and implementing Industry 4.0 and AI solutions throughout Micron’s global operations. Micron’s Smart Manufacturing program is recognized as a benchmark in the industry.