Smart toys customized to each user’s individual requirements may sound like a children’s fantasy but they’re now reality thanks to MakieLab, a small London startup which has developed a next generation doll that straddles the digital and physical worlds by harnessing the potential of 3-D printing with the ease of user generation of content online.
The company, based on London’s "Silicon Roundabout" and launched in March 2011 by former Channel 4 education commissioning editor Alice Taylor, has just started a limited release of its first product, the Makie, ahead of a full-scale consumer launch scheduled for 2013.
Makies are posable 10-inch action dolls. What makes them unique is that each is different: designed by its owner. The first step is to create an avatar online at website makie.me. Here you can specify features such as eyes, nose, mouth, hair, width of smile, hands and (of course) gender. MakieLab can then turn this avatar into a physical doll using latest 3-D printing technology. Both doll and avatar are upgradable and, moving forward, the company will introduce a variety of ways in which one will interact with the other, online and off.
"The vision is to create using digital production methods, game technology, and avatar building physical toys that can then interact with each other and their virtual counterparts--so creating an infinite loop," MakieLab cofounder and chief executive officer Alice Taylor explains.
Her desire is to disrupt the traditional toy industry model in which an idea is prototyped then user-tested, sold to a toy company which refines its design then sub-contracts manufacturing to the Far East, received back and then stored in a warehouse before being sold by a retailer--a three to four-year process. She adds: "What we’re doing is creating digital things then printing out a physical product - all within the same week."
Formerly commissioning editor, education, at Channel Four where she was responsible for any-platform educational content, Taylor has spent her entire career working in digital production and gaming. And it was while attending a major toy fair back in 2010 that the idea for Makies was born.
"I was in the basement of this major exhibition venue talking to all the digital games people," she recalls. "At the time, Moshi Monsters and Club Penguin were growing from strength to strength. Then, when I wondered upstairs to view the rest of the show, it struck me: why were digital and physical products so segregated and their makers so reluctant to talk to each other?"
Taylor launched MakieLab the following spring with an initial £200,000 technology start-up grant and match funding having recruited three co-directors: Sulka Haro--a former Chief Design Lead on Habbo Hotel, Luke Petre who built the back-end tools for Little Big Planet and cross-media production director Jo Roach. She then recruited programmers, artists and a fashion designer bringing the staff count to ten.
A year on and in May 2012 MakieLab alpha-launched Makies. In the few weeks since, users have created 1,839 Makies online with orders placed by buyers as far afield as Australia, Canada, and Ecuador for more than 100 physical dolls. Then, in early June, the company secured $1.4m seed investment led by Lifeline Ventures and Sunstone Capital, which will enable it to take Makies to the next stage. "A brilliant start", is Taylor’s verdict.
With a £99 price tag for the physical dolls, alpha Makies are being targeted at buyers aged 14 or over which, in reality, means mainly students and twentysomething dolls enthusiasts and collectors. However Taylor insists it was important to get iron out any glitches--such as the hardware bug that meant some of the first dolls were printed with a single, giant eyebrow--and further refine the concept through online user feedback ahead of a full-scale consumer launch.
"The £99 price tag is high because of the current level of cost involved," she explains. "3-D printing prices are falling fast, however, and by next year we are confident they will have come down so far that we will be able to sell the dolls for under £50 each when we consumer launch with a second generation, child-friendly Makie intended for anyone from three up."
Moving forward, Taylor hopes to evolve MakieLab in a number of ways. For a start, Makies dolls are designed with space for a microprocessor to be fitted to facilitate interaction with each other and their online avatars. Online the avatars currently exist in an empty environment but the company has plans to evolve this, too, be developing a richer online world.
"The best thing about this concept is the rapidity of production the 3-D printing process allows," she adds. "As the business grows, the plan is we set up local MakieLab workshops around 3-D printing hubs in different territories. In this way, dolls and their accessories will be made locally for local markets worldwide."
The company has plans to adapt the same user-created, mass customization model to other toys, too. "MakieLab is a one concept business which is all about creating smart toys. But that’s not to say we’re a one product company," Taylor insists. "Whether it’s a Makie car or a Makie robot or a Makie something else, I would expect our second product will be something completely different but built around the same central idea."