Andy Cooper, co-founder
Liverpool start-up SwapBots is bridging the gap between the digital world and reality with its innovatively designed, augmented reality-led robot toys.
Inspired by Atom Bank’s unique approach to banking, BQ is scouring the UK for some of the nation’s most disruptive start-ups, who are capable of changing the way we live our lives.
And Liverpool tech start-up SwapBots certainly has the potential to start young, as they develop bespoke robot toys that are brought to life using the ‘magic’ of augmented reality.
SwapBots is a series of collectible, customisable children's toys. Launching with 9 characters, each comprising of swappable head, body and base pieces, the SwapBots starter series can create over 700 character combinations; when viewed through the ‘lens’ of the SwapBots app, the pieces come to life with a layer of augmented reality.
Like many great ideas, it was dreamed up while founders John Keefe and Andy Cooper clinked beer glasses together following a hard day’s work.
John told BQ: “SwapBots bridges the gap between physical and digital play. It offers a compelling, immersive experience at an accessible price thanks to our clever use of augmented reality.
“The concept of SwapBots came about over a few drinks after we had spent the day exhibiting our augmented reality prototypes at a trade show in San Francisco in 2014. The basic play mechanic, core design and the name were all established there and then.”
John and Andy both felt that the medium of augmented reality, where the real world in enriched with digital information and media, was ideally suited to create compelling and colourful experience for children and gamers.
“Our aim was to make the game as tactile and rooted in the real world as possible to encourage play that goes beyond the screen,” John said, continuing that “Four of our team are parents, so that has informed our thinking.”
Aside from launching SwapBots the pair also run augmented reality specialist Draw & Code. The company prides itself on ‘harnessing emerging technologies, creating innovative art and developing sophisticated immersive experiences,’ so they had the perfect background to launch SwapBots.
“Our specialities are augmented and virtual reality along with projection mapping and animation - so you can see where the knowledge to create SwapBots was garnered from,” John said.
SwapBots were launched before smash-hit virtual reality game Pokemon Go and were one of the first toys on the market to harness augmented reality. For John, they’re one of a kind when it comes to the toy industry.
He added: “We believe that there is no more immersive use of augmented reality in this sector than SwapBots. The beauty of augmented reality is that it can turn anything into an interactive and animated surface, meaning the game can exist beyond the screen of the tablet.
“Using a 3D, three-piece toy to attach the digital content to is a totally different approach to Pokemon Go and allows you to pick up the video game character and hold it in your hands. It also means that customising the Bot can be used as a method to influence the outcome of the battles, making tactile physical play integral to the video game experience.
“All of this sophisticated technology and approach will be available in competitively-priced toys that can be used with almost any smartphone or tablet, making this a more accessible experience than most smart toys on the market. And the accompanying app features no in-app purchase or advertising, so it’s parent friendly as well as lots of fun for the children.”
Although they had already launched and grown Draw & Code, an award-winning creative agency, they had not yet worked with hardware so launching SwapBots was a brand-new challenge in itself. However, it was a challenge they were well equipped for.
“Our largest challenge has been transitioning from a software company to one who needs to understand hardware and how to market it,” said John.
“Luckily, we’ve managed to assemble an enviable advisory board including experts in the worlds of technology, video games and brand licensing and we have made a conscious effort to work as closely as we can with the companies whose services we use such as game engine Unity, augmented reality platform Vuforia and toy manufacturer Creata.
“We have also received great guidance from our mentors at HAX Boost, the accelerator programme run by SOSV in San Francisco. They have taken a lot of hardware start-ups to market and know how to reach our target market of children and their tech-savvy parents.”
Thanks to the HAX Boost accelerator and support from their experienced board members, the company has since managed to develop successful prototypes and are set for a market launch later this year.
“It has been incredible sharing SwapBots with the world,” he said. “We’re now looking forward to our Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, but lined up after that is a lot more development on the game and continuing our negotiations with large volume retailers in North America.
“The licensing of the platform developed for SwapBots is also under discussion with some entertainment and toy industry giants, so it would be brilliant to see what other people do with our tactile augmented reality philosophy.”
Neil Costello, head of marketing at Atom Bank, said: “What you may often think of as a futuristic concept beyond our lifetime has now become a reality, and that’s thanks to the likes of SwapBots with the release of their AR toys.
"To see home-grown talent make entry into this market and sit alongside the likes of Pokemon is absolutely thrilling, and even better to see them using emerging and app based technologies – something we’re very fond of here at Atom bank!”