The co-founder of the tech-toy talks about the challenge of work-life-balance as a parent-entrepreneur, and why travelling in search of new business opportunities can be crucial.
I’ve spent more than 15 years working with interactive technologies, including establishing Draw & Code, an immersive tech studio based in Liverpool. Now I’m using this experience to create a toy that's brought to life by the magic of augmented reality – a technology that's really coming into its own.
Like many of the best ideas, SwapBots was born over a drink. After exhibiting some augmented reality work through Draw & Code at an event in Silicon Valley, we found ourselves in a bar in downtown San Francisco, discussing where this new industry was heading.
This was a couple of years ago: pre-Pokémon Go and when Snapchat was only just starting to emerge as a major investor in this technology. We were trying to imagine colourful, engaging uses of this tech, which is how SwapBots emerged. The name, the basic gameplay mechanic, and the look of the toys was established immediately. It remains essentially the same now, as we prepare to launch.
Being a father to three young boys has driven my desire to create a toy that comes to life. The gap in the market was easily identified by spotting flaws in the toys-to-life genre, which includes Skylanders and iPad apps.
First, it’s expensive; you need a console, a £40 game and several £10 toys. Second, the toys rarely form a major part of the experience – they mainly exist to unlock content within a conventional video game. With mobile apps, in-app purchases and advertising are also something with which parents can be uncomfortable.
The SwapBots app is available on tablets and smartphones without in-app advertising or purchases, and the physical toy has a major role to play. This makes our game accessible to the majority of children. It also means that there’s a greater potential market for SwapBots as we focus on the faster growth area in the toy and tech industries: low price options. The toys themselves are brought to life by augmented reality and the video game appears on the surface, for example, a table in front of you.
During the battle between both players’ Bots, you are encouraged to pick up the Bot and customise it, so the play becomes tactile and moves away from the screen. When you're young, you imagine your toys coming to life, and augmented reality can make that happen. Kids can create their own Toy Story.
We’re a team of 12 working from a studio in Liverpool, where we typically provide work-for-hire on immersive technology projects for a wide range of clients – and now we're transitioning into a product company. Each year we set ourselves a research and development challenge to stay a step ahead. This time the team wanted to make SwapBots into a viable business.
All we needed was funding to see the project through, which is where the hard work really began. Since then we’ve secured seed funding from angel investors, backing from the UK Games Fund, and won a place on Tech North’s Northern Stars programme.
In the autumn SwapBots was invited onto venture fund SOSV’s HAX Boost Accelerator, a scheme designed to prepare start-ups and their products for the large-volume retail market. This means that we have a desk in San Francisco.
If there's one thing you should do with a tech start-up, it’s travel to find opportunities instead of waiting for them to come to you. We love working in Liverpool, but during extended periods in San Francisco, we’ve learnt things that can't be taught; start-ups and tech permeate the culture of California.
The downside of travelling is spending less time with my kids; finding a good work-life balance remains a challenge.
Setting up SwapBots has taught us to never waste a good idea. Our timing has worked out, as Pokémon Go has opened the door to new modes of play; we no longer have to explain what the technology is and the potential it has.
The next steps for augmented reality will be vitally important as we start to see phones and tablets built around the technology, rather than the other way around. A future where any object can become an interactive surface is just around the corner.
John Keefe is co-founder of Swapbots.