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Why are Swedes leading mobile development?

Report The Inq toured Malmo asking inventors for their secrets
Thu Sep 03 2009, 17:26

Sweden is one of the mobile world’s creative hotbeds, so the Inq took it upon itself to pay a visit to the northern region and see whether its success is down to its education system, the infrastructure, their consensual management style, or something else altogether.

It’s rare, in technology, to have the luxury of starting a project with a vague plan and then seeing where it takes you.

But that appears to be the case in the vibrant forge of mobile technology that is Sweden. Universities, such as Lund in southern Sweden, pump out graduates with the seeds of an idea. Better still there’s a fertile environment that enables them to develop.

The universities develop the intellectual capital, but it’s honed at employers like Ericsson. Small wonder that so much venture capital is attracted to the area to fund new startups for one of IT’s fastest growing new markets, mobile software.

Not that everyone needs venture capital. Take Malmo based Illusion Labs. It was founded by two graphics developers barely out of university, after they’d seen their first employer (The Astonishing Tribe - or TAT as we like to call them) mushroom from a new startup to a multi million dollar outfit in a few years.

Inspiration is one thing, but founders Carl Loodberg and Andreas Alptun didn’t really have a plan to start with. “We wanted to do something, without any idea what,” admits CEO Loodberg.

Then they saw an Iphone and thought it might be fun to create a game that exploited the tilting mechanism of the new phone. They created Labyrinth, a game where you tilt your Iphone to steer a ball through a course. Ad agency BMB saw the game and flew them to London to ask them to produce a version that promoted its client, Carlsberg.

When their tilting glass ad won the Cannes Silver Lion, they had no idea that this is an award that ad creatives will die for. To Loodberg and Alptun it just meant they had enough money to fund their next game.

Suddenly, a gaming enterprise was born. Since they were lucky enough to get their products into the Apple Istore in the early days, they don’t need to market themselves too much. Since Labyrinth put Illusion Labs on top of the Istore chart, they’ve pretty much got themselves a ready made brand.

The next, eagerly awaited game was Touchgrind, a version of ‘finger skateboarding’ for the mobile. “By this time we had really good contacts with Apple and they put banners up on the site and we had free ads,” says Loodberg.

Apple loved them as their games brought the best out in the Iphone. Labyrinth showed off the handset’s accelerometer, while Touchgrind put the Iphone’s multi touch features in the best possible light.

Developing games for the handset market is a bit like getting a tune on the music charts. The product costs five or ten dollars, it makes an easy present and there’s a definite rush around Xmas. Touchgrind was brought out for the winter holiday season and sold 25,000 copies on Christmas day.

In writing games for the Iphone, the one major difference with the music industry is there’s no overbearing, number crunching Svengali figure or industry executive obsessed with feedback from focus groups. Loodberg says the aim of the company is to keep artistic independence. “We’re careful not to upset our customers, and we’ll never bung in ads just to make a bit of extra money,” says Loodberg.

Round the corner, in another converted warehouse in what used to be Malmo’s docklands, another startup has emerged with similarly unfocused beginnings.

Polar Rose grew out of founder Jan Erik Solem’s Lund University project to create algorithms to analyse images. The original intention was to analyse 2D images and, through mathematical analysis of how pixel patterns and light and shade change, use that raw data to build the most likely 3D image.

But the ability to analyse pictures lent itself to other applications. Since venture capitalists are obsessed with social networking, Polar Rose’s initial product reflected that fashionable focus.

Most photos, if not labelled within 48 hours of being taken, will sit on some storage media, untouched for the rest of their lives. Polar Rose's software will enable users to analyse the picture data, and see if it matches known entities. The idea is that it will help social media users to find people in their pictures, explains CEO Nikolas Nyholm. But surely there are more lucrative users of this clever image analysis engine.

Why not use this digital sniffer dog to fight crime? You show the system a photo of, say, a notorious football hooligan. The software takes in and analyses the fiend's features, then goes roaring off round the Internet, looking for any identical digital patterns on crowd scenes. If the hooligan's face is detected on some footage of a football riot, the police would then have enough evidence to arrest him. Or possibly extract a confession.

"People are free to use the technology as they like, but that wasn’t the application we originally had in mind," says Nyholm.

That’s the point about these mobile technology startups. They don't start out with the killer application, but gradually evolve one. µ


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