GiantOtter is a new company founded by a couple of Jeffs (a Jeff and a Geoff to be exact).
Our venture grew out of research we were each pursuing separately at Harvard and MIT, unaware of each other, and formed after we serendipitously connected last March (more on that below). While I was working on new AI technology, and Geoff was researching education, there was a common thread of bringing people together through online role-playing. Not role-playing like Dungeons & Dragons, but rather imaginative role-playing, like childhood pretend play, or improvisational acting. We both independently realized the untapped potential to use role-playing as a medium for self-expression, communication, education, and entertainment, and were pursuing real-world applications of this when we met. Together, our goal is to create the best platform on the planet for online role-playing, paired with a thriving community of role-players, plus tools and APIs to deliver experiences driven by valuable data captured and mined from these social interactions in virtual environments.
We're not the only ones recognizing the potential for role-playing, both live and digital -- business schools have classes taught by improv instructors; Game designer Warren Spector urged developers to emphasize playing roles over 20 years ago; there is a growing body of work demonstrating the potential for games to teach social emotional skills; and established companies like Kognito are building successful businesses out of educational role-playing. What distinguishes us from existing offerings is technology that combines the open-endedness of live role-playing with the scalability of digital, by mimicking human interaction and dialogue with data recorded from thousands of role-players. For education, allowing players to express themselves in their own words better immerses them in roles, facilitating knowledge transfer from the virtual world to the real world. Experiences in the under-explored territory between live theater and simulation have entertainment potential as well.
At our first company retreat in June -- held in an exotic corner of Panera in Cambridge -- as we tried to crystallize our ideas, as we talked about using role-playing to capture imagination, we arrived at a framing of human imagination as a limited natural resource. Natural resources like petroleum need to be located, harvested, and refined, before they can be transformed into end-user products (e.g. plastics, wax), or used to power services (e.g. transportation, heating). In this vein, we're building a platform that brings people together to harvest their collective imagination, which can then be mined for meaningful patterns of language and behavior, transformed into insights, and used to power end-user experiences that educate and entertain.
But... that's pretty abstract. So, let's back up and explain where we're coming from. I wrapped up my PhD at the MIT Media Lab in January, where I was researching simulated role-playing from crowdsourced data. I recorded 16,000 people anonymously paired as customers and waitresses in a virtual restaurant, and used their data to automate an AI waitress who can interact and converse with human players. Over the years of working on this project, various people asked if this system could be adapted for use in autism therapy, to train sales people, to practice non-violent conflict resolution, to create better teammates in videogames, to teach medical students how to communicate difficult information to cancer patients, etc. So after graduation, I decided to take a year, attempt to pursue some of these commercial applications, and see where it leads.
I knew nothing about business, so I started sitting in on Joost Bonsen and Sandy Pentland's excellent Media Ventures class, where I could mingle with Sloanies. A few weeks in, one of the MBA students told me about a company that had just won a business plan competition at Harvard with a mobile app to teach ER procedures, "They're doing exactly like what you're doing." Their app was actually nothing like what I was doing -- focused on using ER equipment rather than social interaction -- but I trekked out to the Harvard iLab through a blizzard to meet them anyway. I showed them my demo, and they said basically said, "That's cool kid, but not what we do." But, as I was packing up my laptop, they said, "you should talk to the guy who won second prize, with an anti-bullying game, that's all about dialogue and social interaction." Bingo.
Despite having seven grad degrees between us, we had both concluded that our work would impact more people as a commercial pursuit. Geoff's research at the Harvard Grad School of Ed was exploring how playing multiple roles in a virtual environment enhances empathy, changes behavior, and improves relationships. For example, people who played roles of both a golf course owner and a park ranger before a negotiation were more willing to compromise than those who only played a single role. From Geoff's earlier experience working in the school system, he saw an opportunity to apply these ideas to the real-world problem of bullying, began prototyping an anti-bullying intervention in Unity3D, and entering it into business plan competitions.
We met for coffee in March, immediately recognized the potential to join forces, and started sharing ideas. After a couple weeks, I emailed Geoff, "I know we haven't known each other very long, but there's a bunch of deadlines coming up. Wondering if we should shoot for one of them." Geoff replied, "let's apply to all of them", and we were off to the races -- applying to NSF iCorps, MIT 100K, Founders Skills, MassChallenge, NSF SBIR, etc. It was a hectic, but productive three months, refining our ideas with each application. Our wives accused us of a bromance.
MassChallenge selected us as a 2013 finalist, and we moved into their startup mecca in the Seaport District in June. We walked in with nothing but the shirts on our backs -- we didn't have a website, a logo, funding, a client, or a product. In hopes of winning a piece of the MassChallenge $1M pie in October, we have ambitious plans to show "traction" over the next couple of months.
One of the challenges we face is the natural tendency to pigeonhole a business. Are you a game studio? Middleware? An EdTech or Serious Games company? We see an opportunity for a platform that blurs the lines between these distinctions, creating experiences that are both fun and educational, bringing together strengths of MOOCs with those of free-to-play games, but we also realize that as a small company we need to focus. So, we're in a discovery phase right now, and have set three goals for ourselves, to explore different opportunities during our tenure at MassChallenge: (1) Pilot an educational role-playing game in multiple schools; (2) Pilot a "serious game" that captures and transfers institutional knowledge from experts to novice employees of a company; (3) Self-publish a small entertainment experience through online gaming portals (e.g. Kongregate). To accomplish these goals, we are building multiple mini-games around the same core technology -- an anti-bullying intervention for schools, and a free-to-play social role-playing game, sharing characters and environments between them, and are talking to large corporations about running a pilot test of knowledge transfer in early 2014.
The odds are against a two-person team trying to innovate in the education and/or entertainment space, but we have a few things going in our favor. Our focus on face-to-face interaction allows us to start small, yet scale big. Building our platform with Unity, Photon Cloud, and Amazon Web Services enables us to connect a near-infinite number of people in small environments, or populate larger environments with many data-driven NPCs. We're also finding ways to boost productivity by partnering with game industry veterans and academic researchers who believe in our vision, are excited about the platform, and are willing to contribute to the cause. Wish us luck!
Keep up with our latest developments by following @GiantOtterTech on Twitter.