SINGAPORE — For Michael Chng and Eugene Koh, starting a technology and gaming business has always been a childhood dream. When the opportunity presented itself at the end of 2018, it was almost too good to be true.
They jumped at the chance and three years later are CEO and COO of Refract Technologies respectively, and have grown the company from three employees to 50, with three subsidiaries. They are also in the final stages of production of their first products, AXIS and Freestriker.
The company recently closed its Series A financing in January, where it secured approximately S$8.5 million from investors including Sea Limited. “Refract’s goal has always been to become a key player in AR and XR gaming, and this funding allows us to accelerate that process,” Chng said.
AXIS, short for Active XR Interface System, is Refract Technologies’ vision to create an affordable full-body real-time tracker for gamers and creators that allows them to use their body as a game controller. Freestriker is their XR game ( extended reality), an immersive first-person combat game that showcases the possibilities and capabilities of AXIS.
At the proof-of-concept stage, they combined available motion capture technology with other existing gaming hardware and demonstrated it behind closed doors at the World Taekwondo Championship in Manchester, UK, in May 2019. The audience included the leadership of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) which included IOC President Thomas Bach. This ultimately led to a collaboration with World Taekwondo and the global unveiling of AXIS and Freestriker on Olympic Day 2021.
A few months later, they launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign in August 2021 to help bring AXIS and Freestriker to market. The response from the community was overwhelming and they ended the campaign 45 days later with S$195,389 raised from 301 backers, surpassing their target of S$100,000. They plan to use the funding to accelerate R&D and commercialization of AXIS and expand the team.
Chng, 37, is a serial entrepreneur with over 15 years of experience running businesses in various industries, while Koh, 38, has 15 years of experience in esports, gaming peripherals , developing and publishing games to his credit. In the early 2000s, Koh was one of the pioneers of the local gaming scene and also one of Singapore’s first pro-gamers.
Yahoo Finance Singapore caught up with the duo to find out more.
How was Refract Technologies born?
Michael: I was working with Chong Geng Ng, our third co-founder, and Eugene on a similar project when we came across a problem statement that started it all: how do we bridge the gap between play and physical activity?
Our lively discussion quickly exploded into concepts and plans while obsessively delving into articles and papers on cutting-edge in-game technology innovations, as well as non-industry solutions and applications.
That’s how we started Refract Technologies – with a mission to create a system where gamers can use their body as a game controller, and that eventually became AXIS.
VR games and experiences aren’t new to the gaming world — where does AXIS fit in?
Michael: Our experience with various motion capture systems made us realize, especially as gamers, that we wanted to make AXIS much more accessible, more “plug-and-play”, to a larger market of users. We focus on solving some of the main problems that users have with the systems currently available: bulky, not usable in real time and high costs.
Our system would be completely independent and wireless, requiring no base station or external configuration. It’s all on the body, with proprietary inside-out tracking capability. We’ve also reduced the number of sensors (or nodes) from the industry standard of 17 or more to 10. The system is designed to be detachable from their washable and interchangeable straps for easy outfitting and maintenance.
AXIS can also work with existing popular VR (virtual reality) headsets, which can further reduce the number of sensors needed to seven. To make it accessible to game developers and content creators, our software suite is compatible with platforms -forms such as OpenVR, OpenXR, Unity and Unreal engines, as well as with existing VR systems and applications.
We see AXIS as the next step in the continued refinement of VR experiences and gadgets. Due to the intense buzz surrounding the Metaverse, there has been growing interest in solutions that could replace traditional controllers and keyboards.
How was the Kickstarter campaign experience?
Michael: We were very nervous. This was our very first outreach to test the market, get direct feedback, start engaging end users and build community in product development – but market validation was never guaranteed. To everyone’s relief, it turned out better than expected and we spread the word to key thought leaders and influencers around the world. In fact, the level of interest continues to grow and we are considering an additional crowdfunding round on a separate platform to accommodate those who missed out on the first Kickstarter campaign.
You overcame pandemic-related challenges in 2020 and 2021, what are some of the biggest ones you’ve faced?
Eugene: Luckily, we were only affected on the hardware development front and it was business as usual for most of our other subsidiaries. One of the biggest was the global shortage of components which caused huge problems during AXIS testing and production. We were unable to obtain the necessary components for prototyping and testing. At the same time, some critical components were completely out of stock with a months-long backlog, while others had prices skyrocketing up to 60% from initial forecasts due to the scarcity.
We are very fortunate to have a team of extremely talented and hardworking people in our organization who rose to the challenge. They managed to execute a central pivot – pardon the pun – from one solution to another in a short period of time, resulting in minimal delays.
What makes the technology and gaming space even more exciting and promising?
Michael: There is a lot to be said for the market potential of this sector. While other industries have been impacted during the pandemic, the gaming and XR sectors have seen a boom that continues to this day, and it’s far from slowing down.
With technologies such as 5G, edge cloud computing and extended reality, there are now more opportunities for transformation and growth than ever before, and we hope to not only ride this wave, but also contribute to its growth. momentum.
Eugene: All of this speed and innovation is consumer-driven and only possible through active engagement with the customer community. With new products and services, it can often be the difference between a passion project and a viable business.
Early adopters are passionate, highly sophisticated and eager to share ideas for improvement. As trendsetters, they are instrumental in driving the adoption of any new technology through user-generated content. This is also why we decided to create a user community for AXIS from the start, and why we take their opinions very seriously.
What is the next step for Refract Technologies?
Eugene: Even as we work on the commercial release of AXIS, we are midway through the development of several mobile game titles that will be launched in the global market in the coming months. At the same time, we work with various partners on events and projects.
We also had the soft launch of RIZO, a competitive challenge platform for the esports and lifestyle communities, which was the official platform partner of the Global Esports Games in 2021. We anticipate that she’ll be making more noise in the coming months, so please keep an eye out.
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