September 2015

A Long Chat With Our CEO

written by
Ken Madsen
Co-founder and CEO @ DXTR Labs

This interview was conducted as part of the Creative Business Cup 2015, both national and international finals.

What is so cool about having magnetic cubes?

Other than the invisible force of the magnets seems almost magical, it's not about the fact that it is the magnetic building blocks. Our technology could also be in eg LEGO Duplo or Minecraft figures. This is about digitising the play with a physical object where the format of playDXTR is magnetic cubes.

What do you do with your cubes?

We create a way to break the barrier between the screen / iPad and reality, in a very natural and very intuitive way. Children, as well as adults, possess an intrinsic motivation to pick something up, fidget, explore, feel and understand. We are sentient beings and that is being limited by a screen. We have spent much time and several iterations to find the right size, number and feel to our cubes - so much so that when we have our 3D printed prototypes out to presentations and meetings, they are hard to get home again. My own son (3 years) enjoys very much that they are at home each and every other day - it is also a huge and great source of inspiration.

Why do you want to digitise the play?

When the play and interactions are being digitised it enables games, play and learning to cross the line between the real and virtual world - something I do on the screen changes something in real life and something I do in real life changes something on the screen. It's probably easiest to see playDXTR as 27 individual and combinable controllers that provide a new and wider angle of current and new digital learning and games.

What is unique to playDXTR compared to other products in the field?

Digitising real life games and interactions creates a by-product that is data. Picking up that data and knowing in which context the data was created, allows us to create a very detailed insight into the development of the child, which is probably a unique thing about our approach to playing and learning. Suddenly it becomes possible for a kindergarten teacher to give my boy a task that tests his spatial understanding: place the green cube on top of the red. It may seem trivial, but it's the first steps towards looking at the measurement of cognitive development in a whole new light and from a much younger age.

Cognitive assessment?

In recent years we have seen a wide range of brain training applications topple forward, all of which are limited by the screen. Despite the limitation, it is today a $4+ billion global market that has only just really begun. It's just a natural progression that we avail ourselves of cutting edge neuroscience in the early stages of development, where really all the cool stuff happens with the young minds. To do that LEGO and other similar toys should pull themselves into the new millennium, not only as toys and games, movies and blocks, but as a real tool that indeed opens up new insights, and brings other value to the table other than one good trip to the cinema. We don’t see them doing that, so here we are.

What are the next steps?

We still need to move through one more prototype iteration before we are ready to manufacture by the thousands. This next prototype iteration will be for private betas, and we will be offering some of them up in our coming Kickstarter, to invite parents and even schools onboard very early in the process. They have to be just as curious about what insights this data can yield as we are. The first betas would be coming out early fall, and the first limited batch of public beta sets could ideally be ready to ship during the holidays, depending on the success of the Kickstarter.

So you're doing a Kickstarter?

Yes, we launch our Kickstarter during the end of summer [2015], where we will also introduce an analogue version of playDXTR called magDXTR. We are very aware that the value proposition we offer with playDXTR might not resonate with the majority of the market yet, measuring our children in such a detailed way can indeed seem a little scary. We have a clear understanding that some parents will not care about being able to see, follow and optimise the development of their child, in much the same way that you can follow your own development over time in apps like Endomondo or Lumosity. For those parents, that might not want to take the full plunge but would still like to support us, we offer magDXTR - completely analogue and quite entertaining magnetic building blocks exclusively to our backers and as a simple toy and a huge time waster in the office. Obviously, these parents will also be offered a coupon code for their later purchase of playDXTR, after all, we really appreciate their support no matter how.

What about those parents that want to take the full plunge?

In our Kickstarter offer to the parents who want to be at the forefront of their children’s and our development, we offer playDXTR as a Public Beta. These are the parents who share our curiosity and willingness to use the very latest technology to enhance our children's chances and development. They will be able to get either a prototype set or public beta set, and essentially be part of the further development before the real launch during next year.

Why a Kickstarter?

Quantified Family is not a term that is widely used frequently today, but is an enormous, significant and above all meaningful trend that we see in line with the spread of Internet of Things / Everything (IoT / IoE) and the use of Big Data. Technology advances are creating grounds for an increasing number of niches and industries. For this to make any sense we believe that the new businesses must grow from the crowd and the wisdom of many. Even though we are a startup, we are all about Open Innovation, whether that be with companies, schools, parents and kids. It is only natural for us to bring in co-creators at this stage, share our knowledge, concerns, hopes, dreams and ideas to make a better product that can have a better impact on as many lives as possible. Kickstarter and the whole crowdfunding ecosystem are perfectly suited to bring around massive changes in enormous industries, and we want this to an integral part of our DNA.

The wisdom of the crowd, co-creators, Open Innovation, how do you see yourself pulling that off?

First up we want to keep as much open source as we can in order to let developers all over the world go crazy hacking our cubes, and create amazing things that we haven’t even begun to dream off. All the really cool stuff we want to offer up for downloads in our own marketplace. Then it is really up to the children and parents to show what they like and doesn't like, and help evolves the identity of the platform. All the really great stuff though, that our neuropsychologists and neuroscientists can curate we want to pull to the foreground. On top of just being really funny games, these researcher's pick will have a proven positive effect on very specific parts of the mind and will be marked accordingly.

Developers should not be the only ones that can create content for playDXTR, schools, teachers parents and even children themselves will have the power to create, share and collaborate directly through the app, which we think is pretty neat.

Essentially everyone is invited.

Marketplace, does that mean I have to worry about huge bills from my kids iPad?

Absolutely not, we want everything in the child app to be absolutely free. We don’t like “pay to win” forcing sharing on social media for extra life and content, commercials and all that stuff. We want playDXTR to be the kind of toy and platform that we want our own children to use. I think that is a healthy approach to have.

So how do you make your money?

Quite simply we’re offering the insights about your child as a freemium service. Your child can play along happily for free, and we will provide you with a limited insight if you do not subscribe to the premium. When subscribing you will get full insight, and be able to manage and change what activities your child will be presented with, and the platform will help you in more ways than the insights alone. Say the working memory of your child is not as proficient as the mean for her age, activities outside the game will be suggested that you can do with your child away from screens to help the development along.

You are creating a toy and apps for kids, and you want them to put them down?

Kids should be kids, and no amount of active or passive learning in a book or on a device can replace all play, rough and tumble, playing hide and seek and all the other fantastic activities we do with our children. We really want to empower that play, and as such playDXTR becomes a tool for you as a parent to really observe this development on a day to day basis, and take a more active and knowledgeable part in the development, based on real actionable data about your child.

Tell us some more about the background of the team and the idea

This might get a little long, but there’s really a lot to say about that. The four founders have been co-students at the University of Southern Denmark studying Interaction Design Engineering for several years. This engineering profile combines basic mechatronics with a deep understanding of human-computer interaction and using user-centered and patient driven design processes to create solutions and innovation. As part of our third-semester project together, we were working with a group of local Parkinson’s patients, their families, their neurologist and caretakers - so a good portion of the stakeholders surrounding the patient. In order to explore and create an embodied understanding of the problems of the patients, we spent a lot of time with them, observing, interviewing, and exploring - even went as far as to try to work for a day with a muscle stimulator, simulating both tremors and stiffness. While also exploring the subject and researching into noninvasive therapy, we encountered the notion of neuroplasticity and how this has shown some very promising applications. Through further collaboration and interviews with industry experts, we finally arrived at the concept for a digital personal dexterity trainer, consisting of objects that would track movement, and relate that to very specific content, creating a context for the data that could provide very important insight for the doctor or physiotherapist caring for the patient. The two folded nature of Dexter, as the project was named back then, involved not only tracking but also training, which was very appealing to both patients, experts, and us. This warranted some more exploration and research, and our university thankfully allowed us to continue our work through the next semester, giving us time to go deeper into the subject during our studies.

How did you get from a medical device to a toy?

It turned out that a modular, physical device that would allow tracking of very detailed movements and activities with building blocks, coupled with rich content on a screen was not only applicable to patients with Parkinson’s, but really across the board to Alzheimers/Dementia, patients recovering from stroke, to ADHD, autism and eventually children.

After the last exams with the project, our professors approached us and quite frankly told us that we need to move this further, as the perspectives were really promising. So January 2014 we founded our first company together, focussing on DXTR, as we had now named the project, as a medical device used solely by professionals and patients. We brought this idea to the European Innovation Academy during summer ’14, and that is really where things took off. The EIA is a three-week accelerator program hosted by the University of Tallin, Estonia. Here we added the first early employees to the team, made the famous start-up pivot to a toy/tool, won a patent from one of the most renowned patent attorneys in the US, and came in 2nd in the overall global competition.

At this stage, we founded our second company, DXTR Tactile, and transferred all rights and IP into this, which is now the company taking playDXTR to market. We have just crossed employee number 10, and are really focussed on bringing playDXTR to a releasable stage, and launch on Kickstarter.

That’s some story, but what about the medical device now?

Our hearts are also still with those patients that we had the fortune of working with early on. I can safely say that bringing the DXTR platform to patients is absolutely still a long-term goal of ours, and one that we are working on with a global partner that I can’t mention here, unfortunately. Safe to say that they have the reach and influence to absolutely make the best of our technology for medical purposes, and we are very excited to announce the partnership later on.

Children, patients, schools, parents, what is your motivation?

Curiosity might have been what killed the cat, but it is also what drives us. We are all very curious about what we can do with technology today, how we can benefit from data in all aspects of life, and what kind of insight our kind of data can bring with it. It’s always very hard to explain because none are taking it so far. Why is that? We can’t be the only ones who see the benefit of creating a combined platform like this? We want to create a playground for children and a gym for patients, a platform for parents, teachers and doctors, and all is bound together with the same kind of data from the same kind of interactions.

What kind of dreams do you have for playDXTR?

We dream that the things we will learn about early child development can be implemented in the games and activities for patients, and the things we learn about neurodegeneration can be used to strengthen neuroprotection in the brains of our youngest. That makes perfect sense to us.

What do you need?

We need to reach out to interested parents, schools and professionals that want to be a part of the further development. This means figuring out exactly what kind of games we can create, what kind of metrics makes sense to measure and explore the use-cases. This, of course, means setting up manufacturing, buying tools, bulk order components and so on. We have a fantastic and very experienced manufacturing partner in Switzerland ready to hit start. They have joined in earlier in the process and helped move us closer to manufacturability, investing a lot of their time and know-how, and not charging anything for their services.

I don’t think words can describe the excitement we feel finally launching our crowdfunding, and hitting start on rolling out private and public betas, towards the real launch next year.

Any final words?

playDXTR is simply the World's Smartest Building Blocks.

Ken Madsen

Kenneth is our CEO and contact point for everything DXTR Tactile. Ken is making sure that everything we do, we put our passion first; our curiosity for play and learning.

Engineer by training, entrepreneur by heart, father for life.

Secret power: Can stick random objects to his forehead.


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