Author Archives: Ario

How to Fix the Smartphone

Jonah Lehrer, my son and wonderful science writer, recently posted this blog. He gave me permission to copy it here. Between all of us, surely there is someone who can turn this eye-popping research into an actual product!

The astragalus is the heel bone of a running animal. It’s an elegant part of the skeleton, so curved it looks carved, with four distinct sides. It fits in the palm of your hand.

The astragalus is also one of the most common archaeological artifacts, found in ancient dig sites all over the world. The bones have been uncovered in Greek temples and Mongolian villages, Egyptian tombs and Native American cave dwellings. In Breughel’s masterpiece “Children Games,” two women toss astragali in the corner of the painting. They look like they’re having fun.  

The women tossing astragali in Breughel’s “Children Games”

The women tossing astragali in Breughel’s “Children Games”

Why are these small animal bones such a universal relic? The answer returns us to the peculiar shape of the astragalus. Because it has four sides, the bone can be used like dice: when thrown on a flat surface, it turns into a primitive randomizer, injecting a dose of uncertainty into the game. As the science historian Ian Hacking writes, these dice made of skeletons are so ubiquitous that “it is hard to find a place where people use no randomizers.” 

Of course, we don’t throw bones anymore. Now we have more advanced sources of randomness. Just look at slot machines, those money-sucking devices that enchant people with their unpredictable rewards. Although we know the games are stacked against us, we can’t resist the allure of their intermittent reinforcements. 

Or consider the smartphone. If the reward of slots is the rare jackpot, the reward of these devices is the arrival of a notification. As noted in a new paper by Nicholas Fitz and colleagues in Computers in Human Behavior, “In less than a decade, receiving a notification has become one of the most commonly occurring human experiences. They arrive bearing new information from or about a person, place, or thing: a text from your mom, news about Donald Trump, or a calendar invite for a meeting.” The ancients tossed animal bones to experience the thrill of random rewards. All we have to do is glance at these gadgets in our pockets.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with notifications. Unfortunately, their intermittent delivery (and the way they are constantly evolving to become more salient and sticky) creates a digital system that sucks up our attention, which is why the typical America spends 3 to 5 hours a day staring into small shiny screens. The end result is a permanent state of distraction, a mental life defined by its addictive interruptions.

Is there a better way? This urgent question is the subject of that new paper by Fitz et al. The scientists explore the potential benefits of creating smartphone notifications that are batched and predictable, arriving at regular intervals throughout the day. If our current smartphone experience is like a pocket slot machine, every random beep another reward, these batched notifications try to remove the twitchy uncertainty. We know exactly when the rewards will arrive, which will hopefully make them far less exciting.

To test the effectiveness of this setup, Fitz et al. recruited 237 smartphone users in India. Each of the users was randomly assigned to one of four conditions: 1) notifications received as usual 2) notifications batched every hour 3) notifications batched three times a day 4) or no notifications at all. The conditions were implemented using a custom-built Android app.

Screen+Shot+2019-08-02+at+4.13.36+PM.jpg

Which setup worked best? It wasn’t close—batching notifications into three predictable intervals led to improvements across a wide range of psychological outcomes. (Hourly batching was less effective, though it did lead people to feel less interrupted by their phones.) According to the data, those who got three batches reported less inattention, more productivity, fewer negative feelings, reduced stress and increased control over their phone. They also unlocked their phones about 40 percent less often.

Interestingly, silencing all notifications tended to backfire, boosting anxiety without any parallel benefits in focus. (People were still distracted, just by their FOMO, not their gadgets.)

This research comes with enormous practical implications. In a little over a decade, the smartphone has transformed the nature of human attention, consuming gobs of our mental bandwidth. It’s a consumption we often underestimate. According to Fitz et al., most people think they get about thirty notifications per day. The reality is far worse, with the typical subject receiving more than sixty beeps, pings and buzzes. But if you ask them how many notifications are ideal, they give an answer closer to fifteen. In other words, we desire technology with limits, a smartphone that shields us from its own appeal.

And this brings us back to the power of intermittent reinforcement. Randomness has always been entertaining. The difference now is that we’ve engineered a technology that’s simply too irresistible—software evolves far faster than our hardware—which is why we end up spending more time staring at our phones than we do parenting, exercising or eating combined.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. One day, a gadget maker will give people what they really want: a machine that doesn’t hijack the brain. Based on this paper, a core element of this future gadget will be a default notification system that delivers its interruptions in predictable batches. That text can wait; so can the update from the Times and Twitter; we don’t need to know who liked our Instagram in real time.  

Sometimes, less is so much more.

Fitz, N., Kushlev, K., Jagannathan, R., Lewis, T., Paliwal, D., & Ariely, D. (2019). Batching smartphone notifications can improve well-being. Computers in Human Behavior.

Surprise and Delight, Rinse and Repeat

Can you believe this video has garnered almost 1 BILLION views?

Ryan ToysReview is a phenomenon. Since 2014, “unboxing” channels on Youtube have changed the face of children’s television and altered the way kids discover new toys.  Mega star, Ryan, now 8 years old, generated 22 million dollars last year from his unboxing videos and has created a new toy and apparel line for Walmart that includes blind bag collectibles. Nickelodeon even announced a new TV show, called Toy Toy Toy – The Unboxing Show.

The viewer doesn’t know what will be revealed in an unboxing video, but they anticipate that it will be something they like. It is that anticipation combined with mystery that make these videos so compelling.  Humans love the unknown. The neurotransmitter, dopamine, is associated with pleasure of all sorts – sex, drugs, and video games – and delight spikes with uncertainty. Turns out we get bored quickly; the first taste of cake tastes vastly better than the third. Habituation to stimuli is a key attribute of our nervous system. In contrast, if you see something surprising or unknown, your attention becomes immediately engaged. (This effect is obvious even in infants who pay more attention to an “optimally scrambled” face than a normal one.) Neuroscientists call this a “prediction error.” It’s the delight we never saw coming.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a loot box in a video game or one of Ryan’s unboxing videos. These mysteries excite our dopaminergic system, which is why we like them.

Toy creators paid attention to the burgeoning popularity of unboxing videos and two years after Ryan first burst onto the scene, MGA introduced the L.O.L. line of toys. The company wanted to cash in on the unboxing and collectibles trends, and so it came up with more than 250 dolls whose identities are hidden until unwrapped.

L.O.L collectible dolls

How does it work? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wwJbQx0a8GM  The L.O.L. Surprise! Pearl Surprise toy boosts of “3 layers of surprises.” First you open up the six plastic pearls, each containing clothing for the LOL collectible dolls. Next, you unwrap a giant seashell covered with sand, then place it in water. It fizzes for a few minutes, until all of the “sand” falls off. Amidst some lovely pastel colors generated by the transformation, a plastic shell emerges. You open the shell, and there are three “surprise” bags inside containing, finally, the dolls and accessories. The transformations and surprises keep coming. Even the dolls hair and skin changes colors when dunked in water. (The down side is that all this packaging stuff is filling up our landfills!)

Like other similarly successful toys, L.O.L. dolls combine three key elements: (1) Surprise within a known collectible universe. The child can anticipate the type of toy but not the specific one in the collection, thus holding out the promise of obtaining a “rare” specimen; (2) Multiple surprises. The toy is teased through layers of unwrapping, with delight and surprise along the way; (3) Toy transformations. The child is required to take an active role in the physical transformation of the toy, e.g., adding water to the seashell.

And just so you don’t think that these toys are only for girls, here’s another example. Grandson Izzy loves Dino eggs.  He prefers to hack at the egg shell with a plastic pick to reveal the specific dinosaur inside, but you can also submerge it in water and watch the shell fall off in the fizzing water.  Voila, a triceratops!

It’s genius, combining anticipation and mystery with actions that reveal further surprises. By emphasizing the process and making the child feel as if she is contributing to making the product, the child has an immediate sense of ownership. The child is the creator, not just a purchaser. It feeds their curiosity and that strange pleasure that comes from pursuing the unknown.

HitPoint’s Fairy House

How does all this relate to Augmented Reality, my primary interest these days? I believe that AR is the perfect medium for combining the power of mystery and subsequent revelation with a physical toy. At HitPoint Studios, we created a prototype of a toy fairy house and mailbox and then combined it with virtual fairies. The child receives virtual messages from the fairy queen, suggesting mobile AR games and activities to do in and around the fairy house. Over time, more and different fairies appear as the child carries out activities to make the fairies happy.  Likewise, the physical fairy house takes on new virtual features, like furniture, lights and sounds.

HitPoint’s Fairy House combines features of some of the bestselling toys described earlier. The mysteries of the fairy world are revealed gradually, through the child’s actions, thus causing virtual transformations (rather than physical) in the toy and surrounding environment. Surprise and delight are key elements to every interaction. Unfortunately, HitPoint hasn’t successfully sold a toy manufacturer on our vision…yet, but we have high hopes that once a company has success with this approach (LEGO?), more companies will follow.

Multiplayer AR – Good, Bad, Ugly

AR is an impressive technology but until the launch of ARKit 2.0 last year, single-user experiences were the norm. Unfortunately, these early apps neither retained customers, nor monetized. (We know this from first-hand experience!) Since then, multiplayer apps, where people can share a virtual experience in real time, have gained steam. Players can affect the same environment and see different things depending on where they are positioned. Just as in gaming generally, social playing is simply much more fun.

Recently HiPoint Studios partnered with Caesars Entertainment in its first foray into multiplayer AR gaming. We created a series of mini-games for a new bar experience in The LINQ Hotel in Las Vegas. Using the bar coasters as targets, five different AR flick-style sports games (baseball, football, basketball, hockey, and beer pong) can be played, with high scores posted on an online leaderboard.

One of the games, beer pong, is a multiplayer game. And here, let me go straight to the punch line. Both the design and engineering of multiplayer AR games are super challenging but using target-based AR considerably reduces the risks.

Beer pong has a well-understood gameplay mechanic, so designing a two-player version around a bar coaster was not difficult.  However, designing multiplayer AR that is NOT target based can be hard because the players have complete control of their camera and, depending on the gameplay style, may need to know what the other player is seeing and how it is different from their perspective. Imagine a multiplayer AR combat game where your opponent is hidden on the roof, not visible from your orientation? How does a designer encourage player movement, perspective shifting and mental rotation, when necessary? The UX challenges can be monumental.

Regarding technical hurdles for multiplayer AR, relocalization is one of the toughest nuts to crack. Until world maps could be saved across multiple sessions, and transferable between devices, users could not revisit a location and find that the app remembered it. It also meant that AR experiences were generally always solo ones. Then Apple introduced relocalization in iOS 11.3, which let users restore a state after an interruption, allowing them to relocalize a world map to a later session, or share to another user or device. There are some highly complicated visual computing systems to support this process, e.g., SLAM map coordinates, but relying on a common physical tracking marker image or QR code, as we did in the Caesars game, neatly solves the problem.

For the marker to work, both players point their phones at the coaster on the table in front of them; the app treats the marker as the origin coordinates, making the real world and the virtual world consistent across both phones. This works quite well and removes some low-level problems of figuring out where the players are relative to each other. Instead, the device makes assumptions based on where they are relative to the coaster.

Meanwhile, target-based multiplayer AR has an obvious disadvantage. While it works quite well in a specific location like a restaurant or office, only certain kinds of games or experiences lend themselves to playing around a coaster or beacon. It’s definitely a good short-term fix for multiplayer AR, and a great way for our company to “get its feet wet,” but obviously only the beginning.

What’s next for the team at HitPoint, now that the Caesar’s LINQ game has launched? Given our extensive experience with the now defunct Tango phone, our engineers are particularly excited about the Cloud Marker tech from Google that uses recognized landscapes for relocalization (similar to the ADF scans that we used with Tango for some cool AR retail demos.) Can’t wait to see what the HitPoint team comes up with next!








A Year of “Firsts”

Happy Holidays 2018!

Last year around this time I announced that I was joining HitPoint Studios as President, after 20 years at Legacy Games. It was a momentous decision, made easier by the fact that Paul Hake, HitPoint’s CEO, and I had worked together on numerous projects previously.

So how’s it gone? 2018 was, simply put, a year of “firsts,” both for me and HitPoint Studios. Our goal was to challenge ourselves with new, interesting, and technically complex projects. (I think we may have overachieved!)

1 – We launched our first real-time multiplayer mobile game last week, for none other than Ellen Degeneres Digital Ventures. Loosely based on her popular daily TV show, Game of Games, we are proud of the app’s gameplay and polish, and will continue to build on its success next year.

2 – We developed our first  Remote Gaming Server (RGS)  – a cross platform, cloud-base data management platform for casino games, with extensive social features. It is now fully licensed and operational in Europe. We will be adding games to the RGS throughout 2019.

3 – We created our first multiplayer, location-based AR game for Caesar’s.  PlayLinq is a collection of AR sports mini games (baseball, football, basketball, hockey, beer pong) designed to be played in location at the LINQ Hotel in Las Vegas. (BTW – Multiplayer AR is NOT for the faint of heart!)

4 – And switching gears…we designed our first smart toys, starting with an adorable fairy house and virtual fairies, and continuing on with AR controlled vehicles (super-secret project).

5 – We collaborated with Explore Interactive to develop our first educational AR game, designed to teach kids about electricity.  It includes a series of “challenges” to build specific types of circuits, along with an open-ended “create” mode.

And if that doesn’t sound like a sufficient challenge for our 25-person team in MA and CA, in 2018 we also (a) continued work on the Disney Magic Timer app, adding enhanced AR plus a robust Content Management System, (b) launched a beautiful multi-platform adventure game, Adera, (c) developed a second Facebook Instant Game and (d) ported Crayola Color Blaster from ARKit/ARCore to the Lenovo Mirage AR. 

We’ve learned a lot this year, some of which I tried to capture in blog posts here and when speaking at conferences. There have also been plenty of bumps and bruises, as well as some magical moments. Reminds me of playing a well-balanced game, when the next move seems to be within reach, but you have to stretch to get there.

We’ve been stretching a lot this year at HitPoint, and it feels good.

Wishing you peace, good health, prosperity, and your own satisfying challenges in 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 








Augmented Reality and Schools – What’s Next?

What determines if an EdTech product is successful? The criteria are daunting. (1) It must teach something faster or better than is possible otherwise. (2) It must be relevant to the curriculum and teachers’ needs. (3) It must be affordable and accessible to all schools and students. (4) Ideally, it engages the student through experiential, discovery learning rather than rote memorization.

How hard is it to create this mythical piece of technology? Well nigh impossible, if looking at the wreckage of past innovations is any indication. I’ve written previously that the most successful attempts have been those hardware and software products that could be used by teachers in a flexible fashion, as tools to teach a variety of different subjects. Computers, tablets, Hypercard, Microsoft or Google office software, programming languages, graphics apps, etc. all make the list of successful technology innovations in classrooms. Their precise level of success, of course, depends on how well they are implemented in the classroom.

Now Augmented and Virtual Reality are headed for the classroom. How are they faring? It is difficult to justify the use of VR in the classroom, given the cost of most hardware. And while Google Cardboard is affordable, it is limited to presenting pre-rendered visual experiences in 3D. Is it that much more effective than watching a YouTube video? I doubt it.

And what about Augmented Reality apps for the classroom? I’m admittedly more of a fan of AR than VR. In its best incarnation, AR incorporates the real environment as part of the experience rather than create an alternative world as in VR. Some types of AR are possible with low end mobile phones, so cost isn’t necessarily an issue.  However, judged against the success criteria I listed initially, AR is sorely lacking.  It is not clear that most of the curriculum based AR experiences are more effective than other teaching methods.  And while there are some open-ended tools for creating AR experiences (e.g., Blippar, Zappar), they are focused on the consumer market, and not geared to school use. Eon Reality and Jig Workshop both have an authoring tool for teachers, but they are limited in what kinds of interactions are possible with pre-packaged 3D objects.

Meanwhile, AR is being rapidly implemented in industry, with use cases that would be equally helpful in K-12 schools and colleges.  Businesses are challenged with training millennials to take the place of retiring Baby Boomers, and they are finding that Augmented Reality is the ideal tool for any kind of procedural learning. Workers are  taught how to fix or assemble complicated equipment using step by step procedures that appear directly on machines. Similarly, workers are learning advanced manufacturing techniques, with operational guides turned into 3D displays.  Real time collaboration as well as asynchronous communication are possible using AR, with the remote expert providing help and guidance by leaving messages or drawings in the relevant location for workers.

How would that type of functionality fit into the classroom? Well clearly (and I’d like to be on the team that creates this), this mythical app would need to be designed specifically for schools, and include all the administrative, networking, and privacy functionality required. it would greatly facilitate distance learning.  A remote or in-classroom teacher could look at what a student is working on, e.g., 3D printing, robot assembly, chem lab, shop, frog dissection, circuit builder, etc. and write or speak comments, displaying instructions directly on the objects in question, in real time or asynchronously. Alternatively, two or more students could work collaboratively, in the same location or remotely, using this AR technology.

Some innovative developer is going to take the collaborative AR functionality being used successfully in industry today, and build a similar platform for high schools, technical schools, and colleges to engage the learner in new ways. I’d love to see a STEM-oriented tool for students to practice the engineering design process from problem to prototype while seamlessly collaborating and troubleshooting with the teachers and peers using AR.  It’s coming, and I, for one, can’t wait for the future to get here!








Augmented Reality in the Classroom – Lessons Learned

Many companies with glitzy AR apps have come and gone; many educational use cases have been tried and discarded. Is Augmented Reality just the latest in an endless stream of educational technologies that don’t add up to more learning?

Maybe. Beautifully rendered virtual images of the periodic table and human anatomy or spinning globes have failed to become standard features of the school curriculum. Volumes have been written about why, but it comes down to cost, convenience, and ROI. Educational AR apps tend to be difficult and costly to create and must compete with traditional “supplemental” school teaching aids. Students generally have to look through an expensive smartphone to see the virtual graphics and animations, making the interface awkward. While the initial experience engenders surprise and delight, there is little need, or desire, to repeat the experience. It’s also not clear how seeing a dinosaur “come to life” from the page of a textbook actually increases learning.

If you look at the history of educational technology, the technologies that ultimately earn a place in classrooms are used as tools first, rather than to directly deliver curriculum content. Consider Apple’s Hypercard, introduced in the late 1980s. Teachers loved it and similar products because they were easy to integrate into any subject matter. They turned kids into active creators rather than simply consumers of content. Plus they exposed children to more “real world” uses of technology, better preparing them for future jobs. Tools like Hypercard did more than anything else to ensure a permanent place in classrooms for computers.

The first interactive product I ever produced was Children’s Writing and Publishing Center, published by The Learning Company. It allowed kids and teachers to easily create newsletters, brochures, etc., similar to PrintShop but specifically geared to educators. It was a huge hit. My next product was another language arts tool, Mickey’s Crossword Puzzle Maker. Using Disney characters, kids could create and print out their own picture-word crossword puzzles. It was already clear, back in the 1990’s, that open-ended, tool based learning was the best way to insinuate technology into schools.

There are, of course, many tools designed to help educators create Augmented Reality content and experiences. The more popular AR authoring tools that don’t require programming are Zappar, Blippar, HP Reveal, and Metaverse. But even the simplest of these AR creation tools are made more difficult because they require the ability to make, access, and manipulate 3D graphics. (That’s the virtual part!) There is simply not a great option for K-12 schools, i.e., one that is easy enough to be used by teachers and students but sufficiently sophisticated to support mixed reality experiences that go beyond simple target based 3D pop-ups.

My sense is that the path that Google has chosen to win teacher acceptance for its AR/VR technologies will turn out to be the most productive. Google Expeditions is a great start, but students are still consumers of content, not creators. However, with Tour Creator, Google’s latest AR/VR product for schools, students grab scenes from Google Street View, and compile them into a Powerpoint-like presentation with text and voice. Neatly solving the dilemma of where to get and how to manipulate 3D assets, Google’s Poly and Street View provide 3D graphics and 360 video for most locations. Soon, Google says, students will be able to view their tours created with Tour Creator in their Expeditions app and on new Chromebooks that now include ARCore, Google’s AR platform.

But there is much more that can be done. Why not…

  • Add a story creator capability to Tour Creator, so students can add more and different kinds of assets and content to their tour?
  • Create open-ended AR tools that are designed for specific subject areas, like chemistry or physics? Augmented reality could be used to highlight the reaction when you mix together chemicals to form a solution.
  • Design AR tools for real-time remote communication? Businesses are rapidly implementing AR to train workers on the repair of complex equipment. Why not use AR similarly to help students building projects in Maker Labs?
  • Develop an AR game creator with a variety of templates that can be customized or a quiz generator that uses object recognition to teach foreign languages?

We’re at the Hypercard inflection point with Augmented Reality. Now we just need the right tools to convince teachers that this is an educational technology worth having.








A True Turing Test

When the first smart speaker was announced by Amazon in 2014, I was unambiguously enthusiastic about its potential with kids. I immediately approached Amazon, then later Google about creating skills/actions for Alexa and Google Home. Sadly, I was told by both companies that they weren’t interested in children’s content because of privacy/COPPA concerns. Since my company couldn’t count on support from the platforms, and there wasn’t any way to monetize our development efforts, I didn’t pursue the opportunity.

Fast forward to today. Amazon’s Alexa just released a new child friendly device, called Echo Dot Kids with a monthly subscription plan and parent friendly features. Google Home has a huge library of family-friendly content. What accounts for the turnaround? Late last year the Federal Trade Commission revised COPPA to essentially look the other way when companies collect voice recordings of children under the age of 13, citing that the “FTC would not take an enforcement action,” as long as companies use an audio file to transcribe a command and then immediately delete it.  Adding fuel to the fire, Amazon and Google have disclosed that families love the device, describing parents as “voice-assistance power users.”

Smart speakers, (also known as Voice Assistants/VA), have enormous potential with kids. They use Speech Recognition, Natural Language Processing, Artificial Intelligence, and Machine Learning to understand what is being said and how to respond. They engage and empower kids with endless audio interactivity. Smart speakers support a natural way of interacting that doesn’t require reading, starring at a screen, or interpreting interfaces. Unlike parents glued to their cell phones, a Voice Assistant always reacts to the child and says something, even if it isn’t actually an answer to the question they asked.  And there’s the rub.

Children neither speak nor think like adults.  What are some of the unique issues that arise when designing voice interactions for kids?

  • To begin with, we don’t really understand what children are thinking when talking to a disembodied voice. What is their “theory of mind” as they stand in front of a Google Home or Echo device?  This charming 2017 study from MIT Media Lab, “Hey Google is it OK if I eat you?”   revealed significant developmental differences. A younger child (4 years old) treated Alexa like a person, asking questions like “What’s your favorite color?”  and “How old are you?” Older kids (7, 8, 9 years) treated it more like “a robot in a box,” believing that the smart speaker could learn from their mistakes. Knowing that young children think of the smart speaker as a human gives one pause. Will they “take it personally” when the voice assistant continually responds incorrectly to a query?
  • We know that memory for audio-only information is relatively poor among kids, especially compared to reading or watching a story. This was one of the key findings of my doctoral dissertation research many moons ago and should obviously be considered in the design of audio only interactive content. Despite that, the first skill I helped design was a simple branching detective story, in the spirit of Encyclopedia Brown. We conveyed hints about “who dun it” throughout the story. Turns out there were way too many puzzle pieces to hold in short term memory. We realized that we had to write a simpler story, break it up in much smaller bits, and continually reinforce important information.
  • Egocentrism is a key feature of childhood. Kids have difficulty putting themselves in the place of another person, seeing the world from another perspective. It is not until children are about 11 years old that they begin to accept the limitations of their knowledge and understand that their knowledge is not the same as others. Asking a question of a Voice Assistant like Alexa, Siri, or Google requires them to adhere to some fairly strict conventions and to understand that they may have to adjust the way in which they ask a question in order to be understood. For example, when I asked, “How does an ice cream truck sound?” I got a charming response from my Google Home device (try it!). But when my four-year-old grandson asked what he thought was the same question, “Play me an ice cream truck,” we ended up with some rap music on Spotify.  Getting Izzie to rephrase his question, to think about how to ask it differently in order to be understood by Goggle, was a tall (impossible) order.  When we received a complicated answer from Wikipedia in answer to a question about cement mixers, Izzie walked away.

Creating a smart speaker/Voice Assistant for kids that can understand and respond satisfactorily strikes me as a true Turing Test, and one that we haven’t yet achieved.  While adding kid-centric skills/actions is a good first step, smart speakers are still more frustrating than they should be, both in understanding children’s speech and intent, as well as in their responses, or lack thereof.








The Five Year Pivot


“Ode” was created by Vincent Carrella, www.vincentcarrella.com

I was thinking about how to summarize this podcast about my life and career, and kept coming back to “Shit Happens, Pivot.”  Basically I founded three companies in the interactive business, then went through gut-wrenching change about every five years in order to stay solvent. There were no roadmaps, no mentors…so naturally I made every mistake possible.

Oftentimes pivoting was necessary because of changes to hardware and operating systems.  We not only needed to change our development tools, especially in the pre-Unity days. As we discovered with the transition from PC to mobile, along with new hardware comes changes to  distribution channels (app stores) and business models (free to play). This affected game design as well as game genres, and required a complete mind shift to game services. In other words, most of these pivots were excruciatingly difficult.

You can listen to the podcast, or if you are interested in the abbreviated version of the twists and turns, so far, in my 30-year career, here goes.

  • I pivoted from academia to business, because i couldn’t stand the politics of university life and I wanted to make a difference. Doing memory research with nonsense syllables didn’t seem like the way to “put a dent in the universe.”  (Steve Jobs)
  • I went from being a design consultant to creating my own products, and completely underestimated how difficult that would be. Let’s face it…anyone who comes up with a character called “Mutanoid” deserves to fail!
  • I developed CDROM products for kids, until that business imploded at retail. Turns out, selling games for $0 isn’t a sustainable business model. Reminds me of the poor health of the kids mobile app market today.
  • I pivoted to digital distribution and decided to target women customers. They weren’t playing a lot of games at the time, but I knew women (like me) loved detective TV shows and books. I figured that if I just created content that was more appealing to women, they would come. Serendipity struck, and I sat next to Dick Wolf (the creator of Law & Order) at a benefit dinner. I persuaded him to make a game, the first one licensed by NBC Universal.  We went on to develop and publish many more games based on TV shows, like Murder, She Wrote and Criminal Minds, and distributed them through downloadable portals like Big Fish Games.  It was an excellent business while it lasted, but after about five years, smart phones came along and decimated sales.
  • How hard could it be to make mobile free-to-play games? The game mechanics seemed simple enough (e.g., match-3), the graphics were mostly 2D, and the app stores handled the financial transactions. We got lucky early on, with a mobile game called Atlantis: Pearls of the Deep. Google loved it, and promoted it heavily. Quickly we had a couple of million players. And then what did I decide to do? Instead of continuing to develop content for our game, update it and service our existing customers, I made the classic mistake. I assumed we should immediately start work on the sequel. I clearly didn’t understand the “games as service” model, and threw away the best chance our company had of building a robust  mobile business.
  • While still designing and developing games for mobile, I next pivoted to Augmented Reality. I was intrigued with the technology, plus it was obvious that there would be lots of opportunities in education, in addition to gaming. We won a Google competition to create a product for their new AR platform, which launched us into the world of computer vision. We needed help, however, and the decision to pursue this challenging new technology necessitated further changes that ultimately led to my joining HitPoint Studios, where I am currently, happily, President.

One thing I must make clear before closing. While I made all of the mistakes chronicled here, I have been truly fortunate in the people I have worked with over the years. Some amazingly talented, and kind people, without whom I’d have no stories to share.

As Stanley Kunitz concludes in his wonderful poem, The Layers:

Though I lack the art

to decipher it,

no doubt the next chapter

in my book of transformations

is already written.

I am not done with my changes.








Advice for Fellow Toy Inventors

I just returned from my favorite conference of the year, Toy Fair. I still enjoy many traditional toys (skip to the end of the post if you want to see my personal favorites), but this year I attended, along with HitPoint’s CEO, Paul Hake, to get feedback on our first connected toy prototype. It was a hoot.

Paul and I walked the three looong convention floors for three days, lugging a big black box filled with a 3D printed play set, wires, lights, etc. All the coolest stuff is pitched behind closed doors; we finally made it into the inner sanctum! We got an earful, about the business in general and about our toy in particular.  Feedback ranged from, “This is the best implementation we’ve ever seen using AR,” to “Connected toys with AR have tanked at retail. We need to understand why yours will succeed when others haven’t.” Two other general rules that wannabe inventors need to be aware of include (1) The “plastic” sold to retail must function successfully as a toy, even if the child never downloads the app or has an AR experience; and (2) Every bit of technology that adds costs to the toy (like bluetooth, approximately $5), must be carefully justified (and otherwise ruthlessly discarded).

Are we discouraged? No way. Folks were very generous with their feedback, and I actually think we landed on an even better concept as a result of our Toy Fair experience. Stay tuned. Plus, I am convinced that 2018 is going to be a great year for AR gaming for kids (thank you Niantic and Harry Potter) as well as for AR connected toys (see below). Like every entrepreneur, I have high hopes that we will find a more receptive audience next year.

One AR enabled toy that I predict will rack up big sales this year is Merge 6DoF Blaster. It plays like laser tag. I tried out the demo at Toy Fair, and loved the fact that I could hide from virtual enemies by ducking behind virtual obstacles. The final peripheral will probably look similar to a Nerf gun, and hopefully less purple than the current version on the website. Of course it all depends on the games that come bundled with the device, but the concept is intuitive and fun.

Another favorite example of AR-driven connected gameplay was Hasbro’s Hero Vision Iron Man AR Experience. Undoubtedly inspired by Lenovo’s successful Star Wars: Jedi Challenges released last year, the Hasbro product is less versatile, but also much less expensive ($50 compared to $200). The mask comes with three AR targets that can be placed around in your environment. Each target triggers 3D buildings to protect and villains to destroy. It is a simple and well-understood gameplay pattern that utilizes the license in a rather brilliant way. It is also highly extensible, with the purchase of physical Infinity Stones for new powers. (Plus it will probably be applied to other superheroes at some point in the future. Wonder Woman anyone?) I expect Hasbro to do very well with this toy when it comes out later this Spring.

One final note about this year’s Toy Fair: physical toys will never go out of fashion, and some of my favorite companies continue to inspire and delight. (You’ll notice my distinct preference for German companies in the following list, but their quality standards are generally the best, in my obviously idiosyncratic opinion.)

I recommend: Ravensburger for puzzles and games; Playmobil for play sets; Crocodile Creek for puzzles; Mary Meyer for plushes; Melissa and Doug for anything, Lego for building, Crayola for creativity, and Haba for infant and toddler toys.

Enjoy and keep playing!








Hake in the Heartland

What a guy! Reprinted from the Heartland Series: Q&A with HitPoint Studios CEO, Paul Hake

The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) spoke with CEO Paul Hake about the advantages of being located in Greenfield, Massachusetts, and how his studio leverages the surrounding talent pool to focus on the technologies of the future.

Showcasing the geographic diversity of the video game industry, the Heartland Series features interviews with video game publishers, developers, and innovators from across America, highlighting the groundbreaking work and innovation they bring to every corner of the nation.

Q: Can you tell us a little about yourself? How did you get your start in the video game industry?

A: My father was a computer programmer for a financial company and he brought home a sweet IBM PS/2 and introduced me to programming when I was in junior high. We programmed games together, and throughout high school and college, my plan was to start a game studio. I went to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (UMass Amherst) specifically to design my major around starting a game studio. I took computer science classes, art classes, and business classes. After college, I worked for Hasbro Toys in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in their visual studios department, editing toy demos and commercials and used that as a jumping-off point to work for Tiger Electronics which was based in Western Massachusetts. There, I started designing and developing all sorts of handheld games, plug-in TV games, and eventually PC games. So that’s how I got my start in the video game industry. That allowed me to build a portfolio, which led to more deals. Then in 2008, I basically took my studio, which was about eight people at the time, and merged it with another studio that was also in western Massachusetts to start HitPoint Studios.

Q: Can you give us a quick overview of HitPoint Studios? What types of games and technologies does the studio focus on?

A: When we started HitPoint in 2008, we were mostly working on PC download games. We did a lot of games with Big Fish Games, WildTangent Games, GameHouse and iWin Games, which were in the casual game space. A few years after that we started working with Microsoft on developing launch titles for Windows 8. We were one of two studios that developed launch titles for the Surface tablets and when Windows 8 came out, our games were bundled in with its operating systems. In addition, we worked with Disney to create games for Windows 8 and through those work-for-hire projects, we raised some money to develop our own platform for social and mobile games. With that platform, we launched our own titles, some of which we’re still operating, some of which we sold off.

We developed some mobile titles for clients who still use our platform and then about 18 months ago, we got started in the mobile augmented reality (AR) space. We began developing games initially for Google’s Project Tango devices, including our first AR game, Crayola Color Blaster. What we learned through the nine years HitPoint has been around is that the team really likes technically challenging projects and projects that are still a little bit nascent that show promise because most of our team are engineers and they really enjoy working on projects that are cutting-edge. When AR came around and Project Tango was an opportunity, it was a great fit for us and now we’ve made a name for ourselves in the AR space. We’ve launched a few titles and we have a couple more in the works. It’s about half the work we’re doing right now. The rest is some of our own games and other mobile game development projects on a work-for-hire basis.

Q: Could you tell us more about your recent projects? How do you think immersive experiences will impact the future of games?

A: We made a conscious decision a couple years ago to focus on AR because it seemed like it was a technology that would be more readily adopted by people who would be downloading our games and that was the bet we made. So far it seems like it’s paying off. Since then, Apple and Google, the two biggest players in the space, have released their own AR platforms for their devices, so we’re well positioned at the moment to not only be on the cutting edge in terms of the technology, but also there will now be hundreds of millions of devices worldwide that will have AR technology built into them a few months from now.

For our AR titles, we’re mainly focused on creating experiences that encourage exploring player’s physical spaces and moving around, instead of tabletop AR apps and games. One of the games we did was called Color BlastAR for iOS, where you have to run around your house, your room, or outside and it spawns AR characters in your environment, making it a get-up-and-run-around arcade game. That kind of immersion I think is going to be more powerful because you can see AR take over the space you’re moving around in, which is a whole new experience. The next phase for this game we’re working on is making it a multiplayer AR experience to allow for collaborative and competitive mobile AR play.

Q: You also focus on mobile games. In 2017, mobile games generated nearly 43% of the global market. Do you think the popularity of mobile games will continue to grow? Why?

A: About half of mobile phone users are playing games, and I expect we’ll see this percentage increase along with the number of mobile users worldwide. There’s a lot of room for growth, especially if you’re thinking globally. In addition, more people will become accustomed to spending money on mobile games. However, I believe there needs to be more ways for users to spend money on games outside premium purchases and in-app purchases. Right now, mobile game developers have premium, IAPs and ads as our ways to monetize games. I believe we’ll start seeing more subscription based models that will give developers another way to monetize in a form that consumers are already very accustomed to through HBO, Netflix, Hulu, etc. Hatch has been announced already as one streaming subscription platform and I believe we’re going to see more people using these platforms treating gaming like Netflix accounts. This will allow the mobile game developers to monetize their games a fourth way and continue to grow the overall mobile game revenue.

Q: Why did you choose Greenfield, Massachusetts, for your headquarters? Are there specific advantages this area provides to video game companies?

A: Western Massachusetts is a great location to be running a software company. There are at least five major colleges here, Greenfield is not far from two of them and not far from Boston. There are a couple colleges in Vermont with computer science and art programs. Worchester Polytechnic and Rochester University are also not far. So, we’re in a really nice location for all these schools that are putting out really talented engineers and artists, so it’s a great spot to be for that. We weren’t always in Greenfield as we bopped around the valley a little bit, but we just started a video game co-working space in Greenfield and we found a spot we really like. The city has its own municipal internet connection that’s high-speed and it’s near the rail service and there’s a lot of great places to eat, hang out, and relax. We’ve worked with other studios that are in Boston or in other major cities that all have issues with parking, commuting, and extremely high costs of rent, which we don’t have to deal with out here, but we also have a lot of talent coming out of the colleges. Once people come out here, they really want to stay and it’s our open secret that Western Mass is a great place to recruit because the quality of life here is fantastic.

Q: Do you usually hire from local universities or are your employees from around the country? Are there specific areas of study you usually target when hiring new employees?

A: More than half of the people at HitPoint went to one of the five colleges here and the other people we’ve brought on are from other studios in Boston, who either commute out here or work from home. We have a very flexible work-from-home policy. We have a couple other people in our office in Los Angeles, another employee works from Buffalo, New York, because he has family up there, but our main hub here is in Greenfield. What’s really nice is UMass Amherst has a career fair, which we’ve participated in. There are two people who work at HitPoint who have been adjunct professors at Hampshire College, so we have a great connection with that college. They have a great game-focused program there, and in addition, we work with the local colleges to host a Global Game Jam and we actually have one here next month at our co-working space. They’ve been great opportunities to get juniors and seniors in college to get to know us. We get to see them, get to see their work, and basically keep them in mind and keep in touch with them after they graduate. We’ve done stuff like that and we have several employees, myself included, who have spoken at the local colleges dozens of times, giving talks about different career paths.

Q: What do you like best about your job?

A: I studied computer science and art, and I’m not that good at either of them [laughing]. I’m an ok programmer and I’m an ok artist, but what I do like doing is organizing the teams or really talented people we have here and watching them be successful in their product launches. What is really nice about how HitPoint is structured and operated now is I have to spend less time doing hands-on management and overseeing things because the studio has matured so much over the past eight years. We just launched a Facebook Instant Game for the new Star Wars movie, which got a lot of great coverage, but I happily had very little to do with that. It was great to just tee up the project for the team and see where they would run with it. Things like that are what I like most about the job; making sure the right people are in the right room or Slack channel, on the right project, and giving advice where I can.

Q: What is your favorite video game of all time?

A: That’s a tough one but it’s probably Myst. I had a very limited amount of game time available to me growing up, and we had a strict no console policy at our house. But Myst was one that I played multiple times, and really shaped the kinds of games I like to design and play today. It had great puzzles, a strong narrative that wasn’t in-your-face, and for the time it had amazing graphics and groundbreaking animation, music, and audio. That game probably got me into video games more than anything.

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring video game developers? Which skills should they invest in today to break into the video game industry and become successful?

A: This is one topic that I am asked to speak about at colleges a lot. For me, it’s always important for artists and engineers to be focused on the fundamentals. For engineers, make sure you have a strong math background, traditional computer science skills, not just focusing on the latest, hottest game engine and make sure you understand the fundamentals of engineering because those things don’t change. The game engines change, the languages change, “what’s hot” changes, right? I’ve seen a lot of colleges get tripped up by that by having their engineers focus their curriculum on the Unity game engine because that’s what’s hot right now or on the Unreal game engine or some other game engine and the students will have a decent portfolio on that game engine, but they don’t have a good base on which to build.

Same thing with art, too. A strong traditional studio art background, understanding lighting, colors, perspectives, and concepting. We’ve hired some artists from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) where they have a strong traditional art program, and some of the best artists we’ve worked with have come out of that school.

The other big thing is having a portfolio that shows off only your best work, even if it’s just five pieces on your website. If there’s something you’re not proud of, don’t show it. It’s definitely quality over quantity. For engineering applicants, I don’t think you can go into a job interview or expect to get hired when you have a game you worked on, but can’t send over the sample code and a playable build. We receive a lot of resumes that show what games people have worked on but are lacking the sources because it’s on the computer at the school they went to or it’s on a repository they no longer have access to or some other reason. That’s not going to work. You have to have games you worked on, even if it’s in the Apple Store or some Android APK that we have to side-load, students need to have sample apps available with details of what their role was in the development of that app or game. That’s the number one thing you need and you’d be surprised at the number of people who don’t have that when they apply.