Nex wants to turn smart TVs into motion game consoles

September 14, 2022 | Protocol Entertainment | Portfolio
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Four years after being featured during an Apple keynote, Nex is looking to take motion games mainstream: The Bay Area-based startup is getting ready to unveil a number of games that use computer vision to let people control gameplay with their bodies at the Tokyo Game Show later this month. Think Kinect-like play, but with smartphones, iPads and laptop cameras.

Nex also plans to bring those games to smart TVs and streaming devices, and will show its own reference design hardware at IBC in Amsterdam this month. The goal of those efforts is to “transform the living room into a playground,” Nex co-founder and CEO David Lee told me during an exclusive conversation last week.

  • Nex was founded by three Apple engineers in 2017.
  • “The mission of the company is to reconnect humanity with the joy of movement by turning screen time into active play time,” Lee told me.
  • When Apple introduced the iPhone XS in 2018, the startup got invited on stage to demonstrate its HomeCourt app, which was designed to help basketball players improve their game.
  • During the pandemic, Nex saw HomeCourt downloads spike, with people using the app off the court for fun. That made the company realize there was a much broader market for motion games.

Nex soft-launched two more games in recent months, and it’s now getting ready to unveil additional titles in Tokyo. Lee demonstrated a few of them to me on a Zoom call — and even though I didn’t compete against him in person, I got the sense that these types of games can be a lot of fun.

  • Among the titles premiering at Tokyo Game Show is Starri, a rhythm motion game that’s kind of like Nex’s take on Beat Saber.
  • There’s also the already-available Party Fowl, a collection of motion minigames, including one where players control a helicopter by moving their hips like they’re using a hula hoop.
  • “You cannot play this game without a smile on your face,” Lee said after handily beating one of his co-workers during the Zoom demo.
  • Other titles to be shown in Tokyo include a cart racing game, a flight simulator and Active Arcade.
  • In addition to these games, Nex will also introduce an SDK for motion games, aptly called Motion Developer Kit, which is supposed to help outside developers build similar games.

Nex’s next big bet is the TV screen. The startup wants to help operators, TV-makers and others bring its games to the biggest screen in the house.

  • To do this, Nex has partnered with Arm and device-maker SEI Robotics to build its own reference design hardware — a small Android TV-based set-top box with integrated webcam that can be used to both stream videos and play Nex’s games.
  • Lee told me he’s had conversations with multiple manufacturers of smart TVs and set-top boxes about bringing its technology directly to their devices.
  • He wouldn’t go into detail about those conversations, but it’s worth noting that Nex’s funders include Samsung.
  • One of the companies that Lee could disclose is Comcast’s U.K. subsidiary Sky, which is looking to bring the games to its Sky Glass smart TV platform in the near future.

Lee also hinted at the possibility that Nex could sell its own hardware by comparing its reference design kit to Google’s Pixel phones, which are both a North Star for the Android hardware industry and an actual product. However, he acknowledged that the startup would never be able to compete with consumer electronics giants like Samsung, and painted the reference hardware more as a way to drive adoption of the technology.

“It’s the chicken-egg problem,” Lee said. On the one hand, people will want to play motion games on TV together, as opposed to crowding around a phone screen. On the other hand, TV-makers won’t support motion games, and the cameras and chips needed to run them, if there’s not enough to play. That’s why Nex is looking to push both hardware and software development simultaneously.

The good news: The tech is ready. When Nex started, its computer vision model alone was 500MB, and it only ran on top-of-the-line phones. Now, that technology is much more broadly available, and chips capable of running motion games could show up in smart TVs within the next two years. “We see the tipping point coming pretty soon,” Lee said.

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