SINGAPORE — For Michael Chng and Eugene Koh, starting a company in tech and gaming has always been a childhood dream. When the opportunity presented itself in late 2018, it was almost too good to be true.
They jumped at the chance and three years later, they are CEO and COO of Refract Technologies respectively, and have grown the company from three employees to 50, with three subsidiary companies. They are also in the final stages of production of their debut products, AXIS and Freestriker.
The company recently concluded its Series A funding in January where they secured around S$8.5 million from investors which included Sea Limited. “Refract’s goal has always been to become a key player in AR and XR gaming, and this funding enables us to accelerate this process,” said Chng.
AXIS, short for Active XR Interface System, is Refract Technologies’s take on creating an affordable, real-time full-body tracker for gamers and creators which allows them to use their bodies as a game controller. Freestriker is their XR (extended reality) game, a first-person immersive fighting game that showcases the possibilities and capabilities of AXIS.
At their proof-of-concept stage, they combined available motion capture technology with other existing gaming hardware and demonstrated it behind closed doors at the World Taekwondo Championship in Manchester, UK, in May 2019. The audience included International Olympic Committee (IOC) leadership which included IOC President Thomas Bach. This eventually led to a collaboration with World Taekwondo and the global unveiling of AXIS and Freestriker on Olympic Day 2021.
A few months later, they launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign in August 2021 to help bring AXIS and Freestriker to market. The response from the community was overwhelming and they ended the campaign 45 days later with S$195,389 raised from 301 backers — surpassing their S$100,000 goal. They plan to use the funding to step up the R&D and commercialisation of AXIS and expand the team.
Chng, 37, is a serial entrepreneur with over 15 years of experience running businesses in diverse industries while Koh, 38, has 15 years of experience in esports, gaming peripherals, and game development and publishing under his belt. In the early 2000s, Koh was one of the pioneers of the local gaming scene and also one of the first pro-gamers from Singapore.
Yahoo Finance Singapore caught up with the duo to found out more.
How did Refract Technologies come about?
Michael: I was working with Chong Geng Ng, our third co-founder, and Eugene on a similar project when we encountered a problem statement which kickstarted the whole thing: How would one bridge the gap between gaming and physical activity?
Our excited discussion quickly exploded into concepts and plans while poring obsessively over articles and documents of cutting-edge technological innovations in gaming, as well as out-of-industry solutions and applications.
That was how we started Refract Technologies — with a mission to create a system where players can use their bodies as a game controller, and this eventually became AXIS.
VR games and experiences are not new to the gaming world — where does AXIS fit in?
Michael: Our experience with various motion capture systems made us realise, especially as gamers, that we wanted to make AXIS much more accessible, more “plug-and-play”, to a larger market of users. We are focusing on addressing some of the key issues users have with the current available systems: clunky, not for real-time use, and high costs.
Our system would be fully untethered and wireless, requiring no external base-stations or setups. Everything is on the body, with proprietary inside-out tracking capability. We have also reduced the number of sensors (or nodes) from the industry standard of 17 or more, to 10. The system is designed to be detachable from their washable straps, and interchangeable for easy equipping and maintenance.
AXIS can also work with existing popular VR (virtual reality) headsets, which can further reduce the number of sensors needed to seven. To make it accessible to game developers and content creators, our software suite is compatible with platforms like OpenVR, OpenXR, Unity and Unreal engines, as well as existing VR systems and applications.
We see AXIS as the next step in the ongoing refinement of VR experiences and gadgets. Due to the intense buzz surrounding the Metaverse, there has been increasing interest in solutions that might replace traditional controllers and keyboards.
How was the Kickstarter campaign experience?
Michael: We were plenty nervous. It was our very first outreach to test the market, get direct feedback, start involving end-users, and build a community in the development of the product — but market validation was never guaranteed. Much to everyone’s relief, it turned out better than expected and we got the word out to key opinion leaders and influencers globally. In fact, the interest level is still growing and we are looking at an additional crowdfunding round on a separate platform to cater to those who missed out on the first Kickstarter campaign.
You weathered through pandemic-related challenges in 2020 and 2021, what are some of the biggest ones you guys faced?
Eugene: Thankfully, we were only affected on the hardware development front and it was business as usual for most of our other subsidiaries. One of the biggest ones was the worldwide component shortage which caused massive problems in the testing and production of AXIS. We weren’t able to obtain necessary components for prototyping and testing. At the same time, some critical components were entirely out of stock with a backlog of several months’ wait time, while others had prices skyrocketing up to 60% past initial projections due to scarcity.
We are very blessed to have a team of extremely talented and hardworking individuals in our organisation who rose to the challenge. They managed to execute a pivotal pivot—pardon the pun—from one solution to another within a short period of time, resulting in minimal delays.
What makes the tech and gaming space that much more exciting and promising?
Michael: A lot can be said about the sheer market potential in this sector. While other industries took a hit during the pandemic, the gaming and XR sectors saw a boom that continues to this day, and it’s nowhere close to slowing down.
With technologies like 5G, edge cloud computing, and extended reality, there are now more opportunities for transformation and growth than ever, and we hope to not just ride this wave but also add to its momentum.
Eugene: All this speed and innovation is consumer-driven and only possible through active engagement with the customer community. With new products and services, it can often be the difference between a passion project and a viable business.
Early adopters are passionate, highly sophisticated, and keen to share ideas for improvement. As trendsetters, they are instrumental to the adoption of any new technology through user-generated content. This is also why we set out to build a user community for AXIS from the get-go, and the reason we take their opinions very seriously.
What’s next for Refract Technologies?
Eugene: Even as we work towards the commercial release of AXIS, we are mid-way through the development of several mobile game titles which will be launched to the global market in the coming months. At the same time, we’re working with various partners on events and projects.
We also had the soft launch for RIZO, a competitive challenge platform for esports and lifestyle communities, which was the official platform partner for the Global Esports Games in 2021. We expect it will be making more of a splash in the coming months, so please keep an eye out.
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