Tech start-up of the week: Haunted Planet

1 Apr 2012

A glimpse of one of the ghost-themed augmented reality games that Haunted Planet has been protoyping

Our featured tech start-up this week is Haunted Planet, a new digital venture that is creating location-based augmented reality smartphone games to immerse gamers into the eerie world of ghosts!

Haunted Planet is the brainchild of Mads Haahr, a computer scientist who was formerly a computer science lecturer at Trinity College Dublin (TCD). The start-up is now based at the National Digital Research Centre (NDRC) in Dublin City.

While Haunted Planet came to fruition in 2010, Haahr says that the initial idea for the venture was spawned back around 2004 or 2005 while he was tutoring a PhD student at TDC who was working on a location-aware project at the time.

“It was only in 2008 when smartphone technology became mature enough that we started actually experimenting with the game concept,” he says.

Haahr signed up for the Catalyser programme at the NDRC in 2008. “I think we were possibly the very first Catalyser project. Our project ran from 2008 to 2010, and in 2011 the company took over the development of the technology.”

Interestingly, Haunted Planet is also one of the first spin-outs from the NDRC. Right now, the team is quite small, he says. “There are two people working full time and three people who come in on a part-time basis. We’re looking to grow during 2012, though.”

Pushing the audio side of augmented reality

So here’s a little bit more about Haunted Planet and its approach to location-based gaming using augmented reality. According to Haahr, the start-up has spent a lot of time polishing its technology and perfecting the gameplay.

“We now have an incredibly evocative experience,” he says. “When people talk about augmented reality, they normally think of visual overlays and often forget about audio. We’ve spent a lot of time on our visuals but also on creating technology to drive the audio side of the augmented reality experience. The net result is that people really get immersed in our games.”

So it’s all about achieving flow then? “We think of our games as a reinvention of the traditional ghost story, and ghost stories are all about blurring the boundary between the real world and the story world,” says Haahr.

Mads Haahr Haunted Planet

Mads Haahr, founder of Haunted Planet, pictured at the NDRC

Hailing from Denmark, Haahr has been living in Ireland for the past 15 years.

“I have been interested in computer games for as long as I can remember. I taught myself programming and wrote my first games for a ZX Spectrum when I was 13 years old. After finishing school, I went to study computer science and English literature at the University of Copenhagen, and in 1999 I started lecturing in computer science at Trinity College. I had run a number of research projects out of Trinity before the NDRC decided to fund the Catalyser project that eventually became Haunted Planet,” he explains.

So what markets is the start-up honing in on? “Our current offerings are location-specific, so our target markets are companies and organisations that operate particular sites that people visit, such as historical sites and theme parks, or perhaps a particular area in a city. We like to use historical characters in our games to help blur the boundary between the real world and the game world. This also means games can be historically accurate,” says Haahr.

Haunted Planet has also recently recieved €50,000 in funding from the Enterprise Ireland Competitive Start Fund.

“That was great news for us. The money itself is, of course, very welcome, but it’s also a stamp of approval that we expect will help us raise investment down the line,” says Haahr.

As for this year, he says the team is expecting to have a number of games running commercially before the end of 2012.

“I’m not at liberty to reveal exactly how many at this point,” he adds.

Vibrant environment for tech start-ups

And did the team encounter any start-up challenges at the outset? “Lots! I wouldn’t even know where to begin,” explains Haahr. “I would say Ireland is a really good place to start a business, though. There’s much less red tape here than in any other country I’m familiar with.”

And his advice for other aspiring self-starters out there? “Go for it! I’m familiar with the tech entrepreneur community in Dublin, and it’s incredibly vibrant in a very grassroots kind of way. There are so many people with interesting ideas, building cool things and turning them into businesses,” says Haahr.

“If you’re running a tech start-up, do engage with the community. People are extremely passionate, and they’re helping each other and sharing their experiences to everyone’s benefit. It’s really very exciting,” he concludes.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic