Draw & Code co-founder John Keefe takes a look at the origins of Draw & Code as we emerged from our shell just as augmented reality was hatching as a potentially ground-breaking consumer technology…
It’s eight years since the beginning of Draw & Code, even though in those first 12 months the company was technically nameless, and I wanted to document our story whilst still (relatively) fresh. If superheroes can have origin stories then so can businesses, after all it takes a superhuman effort (by many super humans) to start a business let alone keep one alive! So why am I talking about eggs in relation to the birth of an immersive experience studio? Well in this origin story I can tell you it was an egg, or in actual fact it was many eggs, that were the catalyst for Draw & Code.
Back in 2010 my first business had just failed due to the biggest client I had going bust. An incredibly difficult thing to go through made worse by the fact that my wife and I had not long welcomed our first child into the world. With the country still in the grips of a recession I was at a loss to what to do next. Being a developer there was still decent opportunities around but I was tired of building generic web applications for banks and various corporate machines, as I had been for nearly a decade. Post the iPhone’s emergence, mobile games were booming, Fruit Ninja had just exploded onto the scene, like a freshly sliced watermelon, and there was a new games engine on the block. Unity 3D had suddenly made the path from being a web developer to games developer a much easier one. I’d originally studied Interactive Media in the late 90’s when I was adept at Macromedia’s, Director and Flash so Unity was the perfect tool to join the mobile games revolution.
This perfect storm of forced occupational freedom and a new digital frontier was also aligned with the fact that one of the city’s best animator and creative minds had also been caught up in the crossfire with the aforementioned client that went bust – enter Andy Cooper, the draw to my code. After working together on and off for years on previous projects we’d been chatting about making a game. So Andy, myself, Phil Charnock – the wordsmith extraordinaire and the talented Chris Barker, providing the weirdest array of SFX and music, set to work attempting to make our fortune in mobile games.
So, about those eggs. After much nonsense and brainstorming we had finally cracked it (sorry). We were going to make a reaction game called ‘Eggs in Space’. Cue the theremin. In all honesty I think we just found a cool sounding name and then made a game to fit in with that. I’m sure that’s what the big studios do right? Anyway, without us realising it this was the beginning of Draw & Code. Whilst either working full or part time, Andy and I worked every spare hour on designing and building Eggs in Space and in my case I was actually learning an entirely new engine in Unity. 2010 was early days for Unity which made it challenging as updates would frequently break our already fragile project.
On one very late night Andy was talking about augmented reality how it would be cool to have the game be played in the real world. I was certain Andy had just watched Roger Rabbit one too many times but intrigued about the possibility I started to play around with opening up the camera and rendering the video as a texture, which was kind of cool. It was as janky as you could imagine and even when we hooked up the gyroscope it was barely passable as an experience but that’s when we discovered a very early version of Vuforia. The power of Unity coupled with Vuforia back in 2010 was remarkable even when using it on my second generation iPhone. It feels like the ‘hello world’ equivalent of AR was a teapot on some pebbles. I appreciate that probably makes no sense to most of you but I’m sure there are some of you out there nodding away. Essentially a quick print out of Vuforia’s go-to marker (a photo of some pebbles) and every 3D artist’s friend (a 3D teapot) it was as if we’d been transformed into digital magicians. These primitive AR tests were highly addictive and we both looked at each other and that was the moment where we knew this was our future and eventually everybody’s future. This transformational technology would become our north star and that was the beginning of our journey.
As for ‘Eggs in Space’ it nearly killed us, however we did manage to release it to the world on iOS. When released on the App Store we made approximately £100 in sales in the first month and realised that this was not our golden goose. It did get played over 250,000 times though thanks to the fact that within 6 hours of release the APK was cracked and distributed freely. Luckily we managed to secure a number of clients as a collective at the time and the work-for-hire paid for our experiments in augmented reality over the coming years.
Andy, myself and Chris officially formed Draw & Code but for the first few years AR remained as a passion residing as an R&D activity from the meagre profits of the business. The next major turning point came in 2013 when we decided to see what the rest of the world thought of our experiments in AR. We booked a stand at the biggest AR event in the world – Augmented World Expo, which obviously was based in Silicon Valley, and took our half built augmented reality experiences. We had demos showing use cases in art, architecture and video games and the demos were so raw that in a cab on the way to the exhibition I was sat under a huge floor marker debugging and fixing them. Six years on we’ve exhibited every year and have firmly established ourselves in the augmented reality world with many of the people we met at that first show being friends, partners and clients to this day.
Our AR work has been experienced by millions globally and we are now working with some of the best brands in the world while the team has attracted talent from the likes of Hasbro, Chillingo and Blippar and we’re excited to write the next chapter as we believe this is just the beginning for both augmented reality and Draw & Code…