BusinessJuly 7, 2018

Could Zippy the squirrel be New Zealand’s Dora the Explorer?


Every week on The Primer we ask a local business or product to introduce themselves in eight simple takes. This week we talk to Abhi Kala of Titan Ideas who’s reimagining cross-cultural storytelling through augmented (AR), virtual (VR), and mixed reality (MR) technology.

ONE: How did Titan Ideas start and what was the inspiration behind it?

I began Titan Ideas with the simple vision of bringing creatives and technologists together to explore a new age of storytelling and education, all enabled by immersive technologies. I brought together friends and students who were all incredibly talented in their respective fields, but not necessarily discovering the work they desired within the current New Zealand industry.

I’ve always been passionate about child and youth development. I see a lot of them struggling and feel that they’re being affected by personal identity crises, slow transformations within the education system, and a disconnect from the natural environment. I’m a firm believer in the power of storytelling to transform people’s lives. I feel that we can make a change by targeting the problem at its root – providing educating and entertaining products to children enabled by great stories, characters and emerging technologies such as AR, VR and MR.

TWO: Did you have any interest/experience in business or entrepreneurship prior to starting Titan Ideas?

I’ve always wanted to be in business ever since I was a young kid, but up until about four years ago, my journey has been one of many stumbles and errors.

A few years ago, I participated in a venture fund competition being held at AUT University with a team of others. It was there that my true learning in business began with a wonderful community, experienced mentors, and far too many books. Three of my current favourites books are Principles by Ray Dalio, Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willnik & Leif Babin and Greatest Salesman in the World by Og Mandino.

Titan Ideas founder Abhi Kala (Photo: Supplied)

THREE: Can you tell me a bit about the character of Zippy and the types of games and experiences Titan Ideas have created so far?

Zippy is a cute and adorable squirrel that lives on a floating tree in space. She frequently travels to Earth to explore myths, legends and folktales from countries all over the planet. Zippy drifts into these mythical dimensions through books in her library, which act as a magical doorway to other worlds. Along the way, she’ll learn valuable life lessons about responsibility, courage, friendship, and resourcefulness. She’ll also learn about the consequences of good and bad decisions. Through Zippy, children can virtually travel the world with her and learn more about all the beautiful cultures, traditions and people living on Earth.

Zippy’s Tales is a transmedia project that’s centred around an animated television show and feature film, with multiple AR and VR experiences being designed around the central storyline.

We’ve also recently released Zippy’s 3D Colouring App, an AR experience that brings your coloured creations to life through your phone screen. We’ve had the immense opportunity to develop the world’s first AR-enabled Māori alphabet book in collaboration with Ngāti Whātua Orākei. Zippy’s 3D Colouring App is currently available for free download on most phone stores, and we’re looking to further support it with even more colouring stories.

In experimenting with AR technology further, we’ve also released Zippy’s AR Toybox based on Apple’s breakthrough augmented software. It allows people to scan any flat surface with their phone camera and track it within both virtual and real space. You can drag virtual forests onto your desk, learn about Māori culture and even have Zippy accompany you on your augmented adventures.

We’ve also held an event called Zippyland – an AR/VR theme park experience at Auckland’s Central City Library. We had several storytelling experiences available for younger kids, as well as several augmented and virtual displays. It was a massive hit with parents, kids and librarians, and we later discovered we broke record attendance numbers.

FOUR: A big focus for Titan Ideas is to help foster cultural connections with younger generations. Where does that fascination with cultural preservation – particularly through the mode of storytelling – come from?

I grew up listening to my grandparents telling me stories, and even at such a young age, it sparked a life-long passion for mythology. I’ve spent far too many nights reading into different cultures and mythologies, slowly noticing how closely some of their lessons really were.

I think mythological characters often have the magical ability to teach people life lessons in a wonderfully simple way. I want to continue telling these stories to my kids, and someday even my grandchildren; sparking a similar life-long passion for curiosity and learning.

I strongly believe that the conditions for self-growth and success come to those in possession of fair judgement, experience and character, which aren’t necessarily lessons found in most academic textbooks. Cultural stories (such as myths, legends and folktales) often contain the knowledge and wisdom that have guided people for generations, providing valuable life lessons and engaging children with memorable characters and stories.

Through Zippy, children from all over the world will have the opportunity to learn similar valuable life lessons, develop a stronger self-identity, and hopefully grow into more confident individuals. Children will not only learn about the origins of their own cultural heritage but also gain a deeper understanding and acceptance of others and their cultural roots too.

3D colouring app teaching the Māori alphabet through AR tech (Photo: Supplied)

FIVE: Titan Ideas shows that technology can be educational for kids, but we also know that it can be highly addictive. What are your thoughts around technology’s increasingly overwhelming presence in children’s games?

That certain forms of technology may be harmful isn’t an uncommon sentiment, but I also think it’s a concern that’s been reflected throughout the entire history of human innovation. From the mass-manufacturing of books, cinematic storytelling and the rise of television, each has had their own counter-revolution. Is a book considered addictive simply because it takes our minds away from where they’re supposed to be? Maybe.

Eventually, it comes to light with these sorts of things that it’s not the medium that’s intrinsically harmful, but rather the kinds of stories and narratives that are told within it. New mediums ultimately allow us to express thoughts and perspectives we’ve never had the opportunity to tell before, and that’ll always bring with it the opportunity for immense positive change.

That’s why I’ve always remained hopeful of the place technology holds in our future, and that it’s up to us (all of us) to make it into something truly wonderful.

SIX: What sort of support have you received in terms of capital/funding so far?

As a studio, our focus has always been towards edutainment (entertaining products that delight and educate) so we’ve formed several strategic partnerships that’ll help us along the way. We’ve already received capital funding from both AUT Ventures and Rainbow Reading as our visions are closely aligned and they’re both involved in the education space.

We’ve also been working closely with NZ On Air and TVNZ to develop a conceptual television series involving Zippy and her many mythological adventures.

Zippyland themepark VR experience (photo: supplied)

SEVEN: Do you have any other plans to scale/grow further and if so, what are they?

Our vision has always been to go global. The entire project is designed around being accessible to other countries, cultures and people.

In some ways, we see Zippy’s Tales as the new Dora the Explorer, only from the mysterious country of New Zealand.

EIGHT: Lastly, tell us about a local start-up or business that you really admire right now.

I’m a big fan of Kidscoin. It’s a fun, practical and interactive software that helps kids learn about money. I think it’s paramount for children to understand how money works and how they can manage it better for the future.

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