Helping people find their way in the world: the ‘skingz’ taken on AR

Appealing primarily to a millennial market, skignz is shorthand for ‘signs in the sky’, and also the name of the company founded by digital entrepreneur Simon Brown to build the world’s first geo location-based augmented reality platform, also called skignz. It lets its users – both consumers and brands – publish digital content into the sky and annotate the places they visit anywhere in the world through an app on a smart phone or mobile device.

Users can place augmented reality markers – skignz – over people, places or things so that other users can see them through their device’s camera when shared. It’s being advertised by the company as a way to find your friends, inside a 500m radius, to share your favourite places such as cafes, boutiques and bars or even a way to re-find your car or bike in a car park or bike station. It also has potential for brands to engage with new users in an innovative way and promote product sales. As brands and businesses look to find ways to monetise location, skignz allows them to provide a visual option while collecting key data metrics.

skignz was set up by Simon along with a colleague, Gary Baker, in 2013, after the sale of Simon’s previous business enterprise, the Chilli Group. The company has gone through a radical transformation in the past few months after taking on Tom Daly as CMO, the former Head of Mobile at Coca-Cola, increasing the team size in the UK and USA and making key appointments of best in class C level executives and board advisors. Alan Clayton, Global Communication Manager at skignz, explains that the company strategy has changed radically in terms of its business focus.

“Initially being so excited about the possibilities, our focus was too varied but since last year our focus has been more streamlined. We have refined our business model and made it more targeted and strategic.” Believing the company to be working with technology at the cutting edge, Tom Daly wants to engage with top brands and is currently developing new investment opportunities for skignz.

The company is launching a new and improved version of the consumer app this year, closer in look and feel of popular social apps, including SnapChat and What’s App. “We’re targeting the millennial cohort with our consumer app,” explains Alan, “so it’s important to keep up to date with their requirements and make the user experience a memorable one, so they then tell their friends about it.”

“The augmented reality space is so vast and new that we see a real opportunity to become a leader in the location space market. The majority of new applications being released are focussed on image recognition or gaming. We aim to make AR useful and become a utility that people can use easily, enhancing the real world around them. We have nobody to mimic or copy, which is great. So, as well as constantly refining our business strategy, we are also enhancing our team to ensure we stay relevant and at the forefront of the space.”

— Alan Clayton

What’s the technology behind the app?

While many people will be familiar with AR through the pioneering work of Pokemon Go in this space, skignz separates itself firmly from that brand through its location focus and by avoiding the gaming vertical. Since discovering a US company who can pin down location to the nearest metre, the app is strong on precise location identification and this, say the team, is how they set themselves apart. All of the technology is stored in the cloud, which means less storage space is required on users’ phones, unlike Pokemon Go, for example, which stored all of its images in the phone. skignz is the very first AR company to separate content from device.

“The co-founders, Simon and Gary, originally devised the technology, which is written in binary code,” says Alan. “It’s all about geo-location, about what is around you, and is all relevant to where you are at any particular time. Once you open up the app you can immediately see signs or images that are within 500m, giving you all the relevant info in the space you’re in.”

The technology is compatible with other businesses and specifically apps that use location or map within their user experience interface. The skignz API/SDK can be plugged into an app and is fully interactive, enabling users to click on the AR content to get more information.

Challenges in this space

Despite the impact of Pokemon Go, people are still not very familiar with the world of AR, according to Alan, pointing out that 95% of Pokemon Go was in a map-based format. Also, AR suffers from its association with the games sector, he believes, explaining that it is harder to get people to understand the role of AR in business and how it can help their business and that of their clients.

“These challenges haven’t been as great in US, which is why we are putting more focus on working over there,” Alan reveals. “The US is fascinated with new technology, SaaS and new ideas, they watch closely what Tim Cook from Apple says and he has been predicting AR will be big part of our future lives. In the UK, we seem to wait for new concepts and ideas to become established first, rather than be the front-runners.”

Explaining that the people at the top of large companies, the decision-makers, are sometimes not highly tech savvy, he believes there is a “wait and see” mentality, which has possibly prevented AR coming into the mainstream as quickly as one would like. “Yes, Pokemon Go did help to highlight some of AR’s capabilities, but that was a game and only touched the surface of AR – there is so much more that can be done,” says Alan.

How is the company funded?

After self-funding and taking small amounts of funding for the first four years of business, skignz has raised half a million pounds in Angel Investment in 2017, which has been used to update technology, enhance operations and enable the company to compete and grow. Now working with numerous partners, revenue is coming in but more investment is needed to take the company to the next level, particularly with recent engagements of high-profile clients.

What are the next plans?

Currently employing a staff of 10 in the UK, in the last year the brand has moved into Australia, New Zealand and ASEAN regions. That move has also brought in expertise in other fields that will enable the company to grow.

Recognising that they needed to revamp the product to make it stand out in a busy millennial digital product space prompted the skignz makeover and the new app will launch later this year. Alan gives an insight into the reason for the revamp.

“We changed our offering from being too practical and robotic to being more immediate. Millennials want things to be right in their faces, if there is content they want it to be right there in front of them, they don’t want to have to go into several menus to find things. And it also needs to be visually exciting.”

They also plan to add animation and 3D images, both of which are being developed in 2018. This will open up potential for other markets, for example in property development. Not only will the user be able to see a house in their location, they will also be able to step inside it. “Animation will move the signs, music will enhance the experience. 2018 is going to be a big year, a game changer for us,” says Alan, who also confirms they are looking to secure another round of funding in September.

With the release of ARKit and ARCore, skignz hopes to include elements of those platforms into its existing offering, expanding utility capabilities and increase land grab of what is a fast moving, global marketplace for AR. Scalability is important, so ensuring that the right support structures are in place both from a HR and technical perspective is important. And improvements in user interphase will allow them to realise planned growth ambitions as they infiltrate the market.

And what of the future?

“Augmented reality will be an essential part of your daily life, like the iPhone. A significant portion of the population will have AR experiences every day, almost like eating three meals a day.”

— Tim Cook, Apple

While he says he’s not so sure that AR experiences will become like eating three meals a day, Alan believes that AR is definitely going to overtake VR and enter into daily usage. Digi-Capital figures suggest that the share of the $120 billion AR/VR global revenues predicted by 2020 will stack massively in AR’s favour, gaining $90 of the total (up from a predicted 50:50 split of the predicted $30 billion revenue in 2018).

Pointing to the evidence, the fact that both Apple and Google are both releasing new products in this area and the new iPhone10 is already AR enabled, he says this will help the skignz profile.

Location is the key to their success and, fortunately, location is also key to the lives of billions of people across the globe. Over 50% of all Google searches in 2016 returned location-based information via a map or list. Add this to the statistic that says four out of five people categorised Gen Z cannot read a map – as well as the fact that 67% of those surveyed at CES 2018 said that they would like to use AR to find out more about the places they visit – and skignz assumes a huge pulling power in sectors worldwide. And when Simon Brown reveals that Mark Zuckerberg has quoted skignz as one of the future companies of AR, their powerful position in the market is clear.