Published May 18. 2014 4:00AM
Personalized action figures on the horizon thanks to designers at Old Lyme studio
Old Lyme - The way Kevin Bradshaw figures it, video gaming isn't as much fun for kids as clutching a shiny action figure and imagining the possibilities.
So Bradshaw, founder and chief executive of the new company IMAGIMOD, is developing a patent-pending gaming concept - with the help of the Old Lyme-based 3D design studio Killer Minnow - that he hopes will help children reconnect with physical reality and develop social skills as well.
The idea, said Bradshaw, is to combine two of the most revolutionary technologies of our age - mobile digital devices and three-dimensional printing - to allow people of all ages to design customized figures. The designs - initially robot-like action figures available through an app called Mech Maker- will then be sent to a 3D printer so game enthusiasts can hold in their hands their customized figures, ready for battle scenarios yet to be invented.
"We're back to the real hobbyist - make your own fun," Bradshaw said. "This is a new medium, really - a digital-physical medium."
Bradshaw knows all about gaming trends, having been ahead of the pack on a wide range of developments over the past two decades.
In the 1990s, he founded British-based Digital Bridges Ltd. (now I-play), the first mobile gaming publisher outside of Asia, and later sold the company, he said, for $100 million. Now an Old Saybrook resident thanks to his Connecticut-born wife, he also developed the first U.S.-based app store at the mobile gaming site PlayPhone.com, developed the craft beer app Beerdog and worked as an executive at the file-sharing service LimeWire.
About once every other year, Bradshaw said in an interview at the new offices of Killer Minnow off Four Mile River Road, he hatches an idea that attracts enough investment money to create a new company. This time, he needed expertise in 3D design, so he hooked up with Killer Minnow and its three co-founders - Steve Lettieri, Rob King and Chris Conway - to launch IMAGIMOD as a separate venture with Bradshaw leading the charge.
"We're blazing a bit of a trail in terms of creating a market," conceded Lettieri, Killer Minnow's executive producer.
But Lettieri and Bradshaw said the idea is gaining traction, and they have scheduled meetings with several of the biggest entertainment companies in the world - major brands that they were not yet ready to name.
They also have put the concept through focus groups in the college town of Northampton, Mass., Bradshaw said. Tabletop gamers were so excited about the idea that the company decided to take the Mech Maker free app directly to market by launching a Kickstarter campaign to make the idea of creating personalized figures on iPhones and iPads a reality before the end of the year.
Kickstarter, a crowdfunding site used by artists and creative businesses to help launch ideas, is the perfect way to develop a project like this one, Bradshaw said, since it counts on users to help determine the ultimate direction of the company. He is hoping, for instance, that games created by members of the IMAGIMOD community will be shared online, or that the company's 3D figurines can be incorporated into existing games such as Risk.
"This is a fantastic way to test an idea," Bradshaw said of the Kickstarter campaign. "We don't know where it's going. Nobody knows."
Three-dimensional printing has been around for a while, but only in the past two years has the price started to drop to the point that personalized products have become more than a pipe dream. Bradshaw predicts that the average consumer would pay about $50 for a full-color plastic figure all their own, though prices would likely start at about $30 and decline as technology costs fell further.
Of course, the sky's the limit when it comes to pricing, since gamers could decide to create figures out of virtually any material - steel and gold, for instance. They also could print out versions of their figures using pasta, chocolate - imagination is the only limit.
"Everyone is definitely paying attention to 3D printing as a disruptive technology," Bradshaw said.
IMAGIMOD would make money by selling the basic three-dimensional plans for a figure for about $2, plus additional amounts for individualized parts that gamers could buy. The company also might charge for printing services, but more likely would partner with major outlets to deliver the products.
Bradshaw said he expects several other companies will compete with IMAGIMOD in the customized action figure market. It will be a big market, he said, but may have little impact on traditional action-figure sales estimated by the Toy Industry Association as reaching $1.41 billion last year since it's hard to compete with mass manufacturing on cost.
He admitted, however, that tapping into the power of blockbuster movies, games and web series will be part of the strategy to reach the maximum commercial success. So partnerships with major entertainment companies will be a key to IMAGIMOD's future even if avid gamers will be first adopters of the new technology, he said.
"The world is just full of things that people could do," Bradshaw said. "There's nothing like an established brand."
"We've been able to have conversations with (major) brands - they just don't get any bigger," Lettieri said. "And it's not like they're just humoring us."
Bradshaw said that while the basic concept is fairly simple, the execution isn't, and Killer Minnow's background in 3D animation made it the perfect partner for the project. The combination of being first to market, having unusual expertise and gearing up quickly with an engaged user base is the best way to ensure success and keep potential competitors at bay, he said.
As for the users, Bradshaw and Lettieri, both fathers of young children, said they are hoping to fire kids' imaginations by marrying the new digital world with the physical play of yesteryear.
Bradshaw's determination that this would be a positive new trend in gaming was reinforced at a trade show in Boston, where the video gamers seemed lost in their own world while folks involved in physical activities such as Magic the Gathering were looking people in the eye and enjoying a feeling of camaraderie.
"It was like two different worlds," he said.
The world he and Lettieri hope to hand down to their children will be one in which the virtual world of 3D design will be married with the instantaneous gratification of seeing the figure on a screen pop magically to life.
"A huge part of this is self expression," Bradshaw said. "Not everyone is an artist or designer, but they love to customize and personalize."