Tech Up Your Toys
100% funded on kickstarter and ready to take the world of toys by storm, the Liverpool makers of Swapbots explain where the idea game from and how technology is changing everything, even what children play with.
As Phil Charnock from Draw and Code, the makers of SwapBots, is talking about their Kickstarter (which is 97% funded at that stage, it’ll secure the remaining 3% in the following 12 hours) he pauses and says, “hang on”.
As he comes back on the line he explains he just bumped into someone from another Liverpool tech firm, Milky Tea. Both companies are at EGX, the biggest gaming show in the UK.
“They’ve just come back from San Francisco, as have we”, says Phil. “They’ve got some amazing footage of people playing their new game HyperBrawl. You get such a thrill out of it, it’s what video games are all about”.
Standing at a games show, being interviewed about your own successful product but instead talking about a new game made by another Liverpool company is illustrative of the city’s gaming industry right now. A generation of companies has grown out of a downturn, built on over a decade’s experience in gaming, digital and creative industries and are now travelling the globe selling hugely popular ideas and products. It’s the foundation of a tight knit community. These people are friends. They hang out with each other, they advise each other, they commiserate and applaud each other’s success.
And there’s a lot to cheer right now. The story of SwapBots is like many of the gaming and tech stories coming out of Liverpool. Draw and Code began to experiment with augmented reality and virtual reality a little ahead of everyone else. A demo at last year’s Binary Festival at their Hardman Street studio was open house. The enthusiasm of the team for the technology was infectious and became the thing that many people talked about as they tried on a VR headset.
SwapBots takes that enthusiasm and builds it into something new.
“It’s a toy that’s brought to life using the magic of augmented reality”, says Phil. “It’s overlaying digital content onto the real world. Your toy comes in three pieces. You build your ideal bit, hold it up to your phone and you’ll see it come to life”.
It’s hard to put into words, and you need to see it to really enjoy it, but those who have seen it are, and this is probably not an exaggeration, blown away by it. Winning a string of awards, including Tech North’s Northern Stars, SwapBots is part of HAX, San Francisco’s accelerator for hardware start-ups and has won support from the UK Games Fund. It’s also secured the backing from Amazon and will appear there when they take the next step into retail.
“We’re just in our office and we don’t know if we’re doing the right thing. Until someone out there really gets it, we don’t know if we’ve made a mistake. So the buzz is brilliant. There’s people in the toy and tech industry saying ‘you are doing the right thing, the timing is perfect’. We had a conversation with the VP of Amazon - Google Glass founder Babak Parviz - and he was really supportive and encouraging. Even the kids who are playing (with SwapBots) love it”.
For a team of software developers suddenly entering into the world of toy-making it has been quite a surreal ride. It’s included travelling to Szechuan, the Chinese office of global toy manufacturers Creata who are making SwapBots.
“Toys are really innovating and they have to. You can’t have so many high tech things in modern culture, surrounding kid’s lives and expect them to play with a wooden toy”.
“They’ve held our hands throughout, which has been really important. We wanted to make them in Liverpool, inspired by Meccano and Hornby, but it just wasn’t feasible”.
The rapid development in technology with AR and VR that’s impacted heavily on gaming (handheld and otherwise) is starting to impact on toys as well. This is nothing new, says Phil. Toys have always been influenced by the most up to date technological developments. From Lego to Barbie, toy manufacturers will always explore new ways to reach new audiences, and stay one step ahead of the competition.
At Draw and Code, once the team began to have children of their own, they began to explore how the job they were doing day to day, and the games they were playing on the carpet with their kids night after night, could possibly come together.
“Technology is around kids at such a young age. And it’s a worry, as they move towards iPads and games and screens You question whether you should be stopping them. I played loads of video games when I was a child and it’d be hypocritical to stop my son playing with them but, for us, it’s about connecting it to physical play. It’s about creating toys that can be picked up and be connected. There’s a real trend for that”.
And for toys to be at the vanguard of these kind of developments is nothing new either. Remember IBM’s supercomputer Watson, which beat humans playing Jeopardy? Its first use in the home was in a toy dinosaur. Think Amazon’s Alexa is the first household blend between voice activated technology and the internet of things? Nope, Barbie beat them to it with a Smart Dreamhouse, complete with virtual assistant.“Toys are really innovating and they have to. You can’t have so many high tech things in modern culture, surrounding kid’s lives and expect them to play with a wooden toy”.
Back at the trade show, while trying to hand out USB’s and get journalists to play with a SwapBots, the next step for the team is retail shelves, both online and probably the high street. From not knowing whether they were doing the right thing, sitting in their studio in Liverpool, SwapBots are ready to take over the world.
And good news! They’ve only gone and 100% hit their target on Kickstarter! For any more information, feast your eyes here.