Tech start-up of the week: Physical Liquid

19 Jan 2015

Physical Liquid CTO Michael Garland; CEO David Feely; programmer Kevin Loughrey; creative director Sam Warner; lead artist Philip Plunkett and lead programmer Brian McElroy

Our tech start-up of the week is Physical Liquid, a NovaUCD start-up that wants to blur the lines between mobile gaming and advertising.

Advergaming is the use of video games as a marketing platform for real-world products and services, explains Physical Liquid’s creative director Sam Warner.

The NovaUCD company’s team has developed various associated technologies, most recently a 2D liquid physics engine and a geo-location based data analytics engine.

The market

Warner explained that the mobile gaming market is unquestionably large and growing at an exponential rate, it is estimated to be worth over US$23.9 billion by 2016 according to AppLift.

“The market is large and its mind boggling figures enticing, however barrier to entry is extremely low, anyone in their bedroom with a computer, internet connection and some skill can make apps and games and launch them into the quagmire that is the mobile ‘app’ market places.

“The vast majority of these games never see the light of day, in the sense that most of them are, well, ‘crap’. However many that never become popular are in fact brilliant games they just lack one major thing, marketing.

“Most ‘indie’ game makers know nothing about marketing and don’t want to know anything about marketing and certainly don’t have the budget to engage it on any real scale. It is this salient point why most fail. You can create something great but no one knows what it is, where it is or why they should get it. We are trying to deal with this by approaching the whole thing slightly differently.

“We want to create the greatest games built with the ground-breaking technology we are developing, but have professionals with massive budgets do the marketing for us.

“This is where our advergaming model comes in. Our games, while being great games at their core, are fundamentally designed from the ground up to be enjoyable experiences are in fact advertising a product or service to you. We derive the mechanics from the product itself, how it works in real life, how it looks, how it reacts. In short the product becomes the game, the game becomes the product.”

The founders

Twenty-five-year-old Warner hails from Kildare and studied multimedia and computer game design in university. After working as an AutoCAD drafter and quality manager for an engineering firm in Athy, he realised his heart was still set on game and software design.

“Once I’d reached the proverbial top rung of the ladder in the firm in Athy I got bored and pitched this idea of an advergaming company to my then boss. He was and is a successful entrepreneur for many years and is now my co-director in Physical Liquid.”

David Feely is a successful entrepreneur and investor, with a background in the electrical/technical field. He has been involved in starting up, owning and managing businesses in the electrical contracting and the specialist environmental industry where he and his business partner have successfully developed, patented and launched a unique secondary containment system that is now installed throughout Ireland and in the U.K.

Feely is also providing the seed capital to get Physical Liquid running.

Michael Garland, CTO and co-founder holds a BSc in mathematics and applied physics with electronics (Hons) and a MSc in applied geophysics.

He was employed as a geophysicist creating software filters to analysis seismic data. His expertise in software let him to a pure software development career.

He was employed by IBM for 11 years where he learned the full software development lifecycle. During this time he learnt every aspect of software development. He successfully created and installed numerous enterprise sized systems.

Garland set up his own software consulting business 14 years ago, specialising in enterprise and inter enterprise system integration. He is currently extending this integration to mobile and embedded devices.

The technology

Among the technologies built so far is a 2D liquid physics plugin built for the unity3D game engine. “It basically allows people to simulate 2D fluids in real time on multiple gaming platforms. Crucially it allows developers to simulate 1000’s of fluid ‘particles’ on mobile devices. So now you could play angry birds with a water cannon!

“Another piece of technology is our geo-location based data analytics engine. This technology allows us to provide our partner company with lots of useful marketing data…. Who’s playing the game, how long are they playing, where are they playing etc. etc.

“The best way to describe how this works is to give a hypothetical example:

‘Company X’ for example can see in what part of Dublin people are playing the most, what demographic are playing the most and exactly how long they have been playing. So it’s very quantifiable marketing.

“For example, during a rugby game in the Aviva, Company X can see how many 18-24 year olds around the stadium were exposed to the brand through the game and exactly how long this brand exposure lasted.It’s also a great technology for the player as we can have geo-location based leader boards so you can see if you’re the best player in Dublin 8 or Ireland or the world!

Blurred lines

As a kid Warner used to use his father’s Windows 95 computer to improve games. “It’s been my dream since I was a kid to design software and games, ever since I was messing with my dad’s Windows 95 computer, trying to figure out how all the programs worked or writing down how I would improve my favourite computer games, lamenting why the developers left out my ingenious features!

“It may be clichéd but any monetary gain is a bonus, anyway I’m a firm believer that if you go into business just to make money it’s often very elusive. However going into business to solve a problem or make a dream a reality, the money, is often inevitable.”

Warner says Physical Liquid wants to blur the lines between mobile gaming and advertising.

“We want to create advergames of such high quality that the player forgets they are being marketed to and the brand metrics of the product in the eyes of the player are heightened in every way.

“We want to be the ‘go-to people’ for creating bespoke, high quality advergames. The world leader in this new, exciting and ever evolving space.”

Highs and lows

Warner describes the start-up journey as being a journey of incredible highs and lows.

“One day you can be on top of the world, your own boss with your own company, creating a ground-breaking technology with an enthused group of individuals, doing what you love and loving every minute. The next day a deal could collapse and you have to ask: do I know what I’m doing here? Are we out of our depth? Is the investor going to shoot me?

“It is tough, it’s very long hours for very little pay, there is no overtime and there are no holidays, you’re ‘creative director’, ‘manager’, ‘accountant’ ‘HR’, ‘PR’, ‘carpet cleaner’ and ‘bin man’ its all-consuming.

“But I would not be doing anything else and I am living out the beginnings of what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

Warner credits the Government for funding and supports for indigenous Irish companies.

“There is a wealth of supports and programs provided by Enterprise Ireland to get you off the ground and point you in the right direction. There is also a huge number of incubation centres in Dublin, both public and private, that will help connect and grow your business.

“We wouldn’t be where we are today if it were not for the support and expertise offered to us by NovaUCD.”

Advice for start-ups

Warner has three pieces of advice for other start-ups and would-be founders.

“Remember to delegate and hire people to do what you are not good at. If you’re a programmer then you should be programming, not spending your time trying to understand online marketing metrics.

“Take on board criticism, your idea is your baby and it is tempting to call everyone who calls your baby ugly an idiot. But often you need to take a step back and let people play devil’s advocate with your idea and hammer home some hard truths.

“Finally, engage with the industry! Insulating yourself is idiotic. Don’t think you can or have to do it alone, the key to a successful start-up capitalising on a great idea is all about the people surrounding it. Get out there and ask people who’ve done it before for help and advice on your individual problems and questions. People are generally nice and obliging, and even CEOs of big corporations will give you 10 minutes of their time.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years