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Lighting Up

Thu 08 Oct 2009 7:00am GMT / 3:00am EDT / 12:00am PDT
Hardware

amBX boss Neil MacDonald outlines the company's plans to bring new experiences to console gamers

amBX

amBX is a software company that is revolutionising lighting and digital entertainment markets by taking...

ambx.com

When amBX was first announced it was as a research project from the Philips labs, and focused on enhancing PC desktop gaming through the introduction of special lighting and fan peripherals.

But this time last year the business was spun out, and here CEO Neil MacDonald explains how the company's aims have developed in that time - plus why amBX could soon be very much in the living room and not just the study.

Q: When we first heard about amBX a couple of years ago it was as a Philips project - explain first of all what's been happening in the past year, and why it's a company in its own right now.

Neil MacDonald: The amBX technology was developed over several years in Philips' research and development department, which is probably one of the leading places in the world to develop any kind of technology to be honest.

I was approached by Philips about two years ago now to come and have a look at amBX, because they'd come to the realisation that it wasn't going to be just a core component technology in Philips products - that it had a bigger fate beyond that.

So it became one of the candidates for a spin-out business, which they do quite regularly when they develop certain technologies. I came along and had a look, and was immediately struck by how exciting it was, and the potential. They'd already produced some Philips PC peripherals with amBX in, so I found out what people who'd been using them thought - and they'd been delighted with the experience, a dimension they'd never experienced before in gaming.

So that convinced me pretty early on that this was good stuff, and I took the project on. We span out of Philips at the beginning of October 2008, so we're at our first birthday as a completely independent business. We own all of the amBX technology, we're totally independent - Philips isn't even a share-holder, and that was one of the most important things for us.

Since then we've demonstrated to the industry that we're totally committed to taking amBX to games in a way that the industry really can benefit.

Q: How is the business funded then?

Neil MacDonald: It's privately funded - primarily venture-capitalists and management. The money was put up to invest in the business, spin it out of Philips by the VCs and existing shareholders. It's going pretty well so far.

Q: You recently released a piece of hardware that controls lighting for venues and events - what was the thinking behind that?

Neil MacDonald: Well, when we created the new company we all strongly believed that this technology went beyond just the world of gaming. The next sector that we wanted to take it into was the professional lighting industry. We knew that if we put the power and creativity that amBX has to control coloured lighting and creative experiences and ambiences that it does, we could put that in the hands of the lighting industry and it could be really interesting.

But we didn't know how to do that, so we looked around and there wasn't an obvious way to do it - so somebody suggested we make an amBX lighting controller. We first thought that would be silly, because we're not product manufacturers, but then we thought again - we figured out how we could do it and a few weeks ago we launched it.

We've gone from idea to product launch in nine months, we have a worldwide distribution deal in place, and it was launched at a major trade show a couple of weeks ago and we've already got our first night club and first hotel. It's already been used on live events and there are more and more installations happening.

So that's very exciting for us, but essentially it's exactly the same technology that's available for games developers and gaming products.

Q: That must be a pretty useful second revenue stream?

Neil MacDonald: Yes, the grand strategy for world domination by amBX includes us not just going to gaming and lighting, but into other sectors. We're thinking about cinema, we're thinking about movies, we're thinking about music and TV - and we're thinking ultimately about home automation, when every house has LED lighting.

There are some very interesting things you can do by turning your whole house into a games machine... that's a few years away, but we know we've got the capabilities in amBX, the technology and way it can be used that will deliver that.

Q: Most people will probably have a sense of what amBX technology does for a PC set-up - but it's going to be important to get into the living-room for home entertainment purposes. To that end, what are your plans for the console space?

Neil MacDonald: We've started off on PC because it's the most accessible platform when you're developing, trialling and testing things out, and creating your own ideas. That's gone very well, and we know that the PC gamer is, if you like, our classic customer - somebody who plays an online game, for example, for hours and hours, and is constantly coming back to the same game. That's a fantastic opportunity for us to then expand their whole experience in the game they're so committed to.

So very important for us on PC - but how do we move on to the more mainstream console? Well, we are already - we're licensed for PlayStation, and we've embarked on that process with Xbox. It's all with view to having - hopefully - consumer products moving into the market at the end of 2010, early 2011, that are amBX, and enhance the whole console experience.

It's not just for games - we enhance the movie experience, download content, streamed content, and we'll deliver amBX effectively across all of that because we've got a scripted experience model and an automated model - and both work very, very well.

So anybody buying amBX equipment, it's not just going to work on this game or that game, it'll work on all their games to a certain degree, and all their movies and any other content they're using as well.

Q: Who are you working with on the developer or publisher side, and how much buy-in is there when it comes to putting this into games?

Neil MacDonald: We're getting very good buy-in, actually, because one of the first things we did when we came out of Philips was to produce an amBX development kit, which we give away for free. We put a lot of time and effort in making it the best possible toolset we could provide to develop this.

So much so, that another industry heavyweight, Immersion Inc [the company behind rumble technology], has actually approached us and we're now working on a joint development kit with them, which also uses Immersion effects - so again, it's a commitment to making this easier and better for the industry to adopt so that developers and publishers see a real benefit from it.

Q: If there's one SDK for Rumble and amBX... most people will use that to put rumble in their games, so it's easy for them to add in amBX as well?

Neil MacDonald: That's what we're hoping to be able to deliver - that's our ambition - to make it so easy and give them such a good set of tools that they see it's the way to go.

Q: And you feel that once it's in the majority of games that's more likely to produce a more mass-market response from gamers?

Neil MacDonald: And also the games publishers have one question: "When are you going to have console product out there?" We have to bring both of those together at the same time - we know that if the publishers support it we'll get the hardware out there, and if the hardware's out there then the publishers will support it. That's the equation we're putting together right now.

Q: And what about on the product side of things - Philips manufactured the original PC peripherals, so will that still happen?

Neil MacDonald: No, Philips has moved away from PC accessories in that way, but we recently announced a licensing deal with Mad Catz to produce some products under the Saitek brand. There are more announcements coming out soon around that - and that's fairly exciting. It's the first of what we hope will be a number of further licensing announcements over the next couple of months.

Q: In terms of cost - and more importantly scalability of cost - who are you pitching this too, and what will entry level look like?

Neil MacDonald: You can actually buy one of the Philips kits for about GBP 50, and that'll give you a great experience on your PC. There will be a premium for amBX products compared to non-amBX products - we make our money out of licensing, so that license cost is borne by the device manufacturer, but it's free to publishers and developers.

The price points will be determined by our partners, not by us - we're not making the products, so it would be wrong for me to speculate on that. We know that nobody's going to produce a product that's ridiculously out of the ballpark.

Q: And what does that GBP 50 get you at the moment?

Neil MacDonald: You can get a lighting set for your PC, including desktop fans and a rumble strip, for about GBP 59 I think is the current price.

Q: We're sitting in a living-room set-up at the moment that's got lights all over the place, and a sofa that even rumbles - this is non-commercial kit, of course, but projecting forwards, for any Premiership footballers reading this, what would something like this cost?

Neil MacDonald: There are too many different versions - the Full Monty version, which is your home media room that's fully amBX'd, where you can immerse yourself totally in the experience with full colour LED lighting - the lights will cost a lot more than the amBX will, for a start, but the lighting controller product we have is around GBP 6000 to the end user.

You'll probably spend a bit more than that on lighting, but your average Premiership footballer wouldn't blink about that [smiles] - those are the kinds of installations we'll see going in early on.

However, for the console product it's the other end of the scale - we've got to get the price points down to something that's similar to the ones on PC - GBP 100 would be a good target for a set of lights, for example, but I don't know. We'll see. We think those are the price points are already buying peripherals - you've only got to look at how that's been driven by music games, accessories, DJ Hero and things like that. So we're in that ball park.

Q: There is a bit of a question mark over how much consumers are happy to pay for peripherals at the moment -

Neil MacDonald: I think you have to be careful to make the distinction between a games peripheral and a console accessory. I think that's quite a different thing, and we're talking about console accessories.

Q: But we're still talking about luxury items, in effect.

Neil MacDonald: It's an upgrade of your experience with games you already know - because it will work on games you already have with the automated effects. It'll be an upgraded experience on scripted games and new releases that are scripted - and it's an upgraded experience across your whole movie or downloaded content. We think that a lot of people will take that upgrade.

Q: Have you spoken to retail about it yet?

Neil MacDonald: No, we're not the product guys, we're the technology behind it. amBX will be within whatever the product is.

Q: So as a brand, you won't have any involvement in things like in-store demo rooms?

Neil MacDonald: Only in helping the retailers, if they wanted help from us, in communicating the message, or the best way to display it, but we won't be working directly with retailers in that sense - it'll be done through our partners.

Q: Are there any specific releases coming in the next few months that people should be looking out for with relation to amBX?

Neil MacDonald: Yes, Operation Flashpoint 2: Dragon Rising - fully scripted, a fantastic game. And we're really excited about how that's going to be received with amBX. If anybody's interested in playing that, play it with amBX.

Neil MacDonald is CEO of amBX. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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