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Gravity Jack Chief Operating Officer Mitch Williams takes note as cousins (from left) Megan and Hannah Crooks use an iPad to play games with MushABellies characters. The augmented reality technology that turns the stuffed animal toy into a character in an interactive game was developed by the Liberty Lake company.

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Toy + technology
12/12/2012 10:37:55 AM

HowBy Jocelyn Stott
Splash Contributor

Profiles:
MushABellies

Gravity Jack employs great minds in the realm of augmented reality software, but Chief Operating Officer Mitch Williams brought in some top-notch experts to weigh-in on his latest project - his cousins Megan and Hannah Crooks, ages 6 and 9, who live just down the road in Greenacres. 

The product is MushABellies, a round, plush animal character that makes an accompanying sound when squeezed in the middle. In 2005, the toy was a best-seller, but parent company Jay@Play wanted to add a new feature, so they sought out the Liberty Lake Company to produce it.  Gravity Jack then looked to Megan and Hannah to perfect it.

"When the kids won't put it down, and it leads to hours of play, we know we're getting it right," said Williams, who added Gravity Jack developers and their families also had a great time developing the toy.

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Thanks to Gravity Jack's technology, MushABellies now features augmented reality (AR) run by an app on smart phones, tablets and iPods with a camera. The toy comes in several animal-like characters like Heckle Hedgehog, Finless Frog, Conan Cow, Racket Raccoon, Buzzie Bee and Mungo Monkey. Once purchased, the package comes with a Passport Pack with AR cards that look like 2 by 2-inch cardboard slides.

The cards are scanned by a mobile device, which runs the free app downloadable from Android or Apple stores. When scanned, the cards and the surrounding area become a game on the device, allowing characters like Mungo Monkey to jump from a springboard into a barrel. MushABellies work great for collecting, so Finless Frog can also shoot from a cannon into a hollow tree, and so on. The real world is also in the game, so if the cards are on a picnic table in the park, the park is there, too.

Augmented reality is created by scanning and incorporating the surrounding "real world" into a mobile device so that it appears as part of the on-screen background and/or activity. It then picks up coding in a graphic, known as a marker. AR is used in movie posters to become a movie trailer or as demonstration video on a product guide. In the case of MushAbellies, it's part of an interactive game for kids to play with their favorite cartoon characters.

Megan likes to watch Hannah fling the raccoon into a trashcan while the colorful Racket says, "Wahoooo!"

This is one of Hannah's favorite parts of the game, too. They both like that their cousin played a large role in making it.

Hannah thinks a trampoline option would be fun for bouncing her characters into the air. At MushABellies.com, extra Bounce Cards (used as markers) are available - including a drum and, lucky for Hannah, a trampoline.

Williams said the graphics for the program took a week or two per character. They start in two dimension, and then programmers turn them into 3-D. The whole game development process took the team about 10 months.

Launched in September, the toy makers won't know until after the holidays if their toy is a hit with everyone.
To help spread the word, a close friend of the Williams' family, Sam McGhee of Spokane, made a commercial featuring Hannah and Megan, along with other children, viewable online on the MushABelly website. 
What was it like to be on a commercial?

"It was cool," Hannah said. "It made me feel like I was almost, like, famous or something."

Williams explained that his young cousins were important to the design process in a way he really values.

"Today, kids pick up technology intuitively," he said. "They just know what to do with it in a way that many adults don't. If they pick it up, we can come closer to predicting how things will work in the future."

The girls describe the intuitive design a little differently.

"It's easier to play than Angry Birds," Hannah said of the "other" popular online game. 

"It's fun because the animals are cute. I want there to be a koala bear, too," Megan added as Williams took note.

"Oooh, polar bears and penguins, too!" offered Hannah, cueing more note-taking by Williams.

The girls' mother, Heather Crooks, said she likes the toy because it's fun for them and age-appropriate.

"I don't worry that the girls are going to experience anything I'm not comfortable with in a toy like this," she said. "It's safe."

Heather enjoyed the family connections that came with the toy development - including the multiple generations involved. She added that just about everyone uses mobile technology in some way - even grandparents.

"But my grandma and grandpa are old, so they only play Scrabble and Words With Friends on iPad," Hannah said.

Williams said he hopes holiday sales show that grandparents like to include MushABellies as gifts, but he also hopes Santa will provide an extra marketing push.

"We extended a special deal to the elves at the workshop, so MushABellies could possibly arrive by sleigh and reindeer, too," he said. 

Shoppers without North Pole connections may find the toy locally at Walgreen's Target, Kmart, Justice and Fred Meyer - and online at www.Mushabellies.com.

Profiles:
MushABellies

Cost
Around $20 for the toy plus marker pack

Offered by
Jay@Play Toy Company and equipped with AR (Augmented Reality) technology by Liberty Lake-based Gravity Jack

About Gravity Jack
Founded in 2009 by Luke Richey, Central Valley High School grad Mitch Williams, COO, was "employee No. 6" after leaving his final year at Whitworth University as a graphic design student. Gravity Jack has grown rapidly and currently employs 30 in its offices at 23505 E. Appleway Ave.

Other Gravity Jack clients
Coca Cola, Bowflex, MySpace

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