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Retro Active: Why A U.K.-based Games Console Venture Is Putting Its Faith In A Digital Assistant

When it comes to handheld games consoles, one name dominates. Nintendo didn’t invent the category but its Gameboy handset, launched in the late 1980s, became synonymous with portable electronic fun for a generation coming of age just before the internet revolution.

But here’s the thing. There are plenty of other players in the market. Run a quick search on Amazon and you’ll find a cornucopia of handheld consoles across price points ranging from 30 or 40 pounds, dollars or euros to ten times that amount. And there is, as I discovered doing the background research for this article, a surprisingly large community of gamers who still love their brightly-colored, retro-styled portable devices.

But here’s a question: In 2022, is it possible to launch a differentiated premium product that will persuade consumers with the budget for a Nintendo DS to try something new?

Gianni O’Connor, a 29-year-old, U.K.-based entrepreneur, believes you can. Launching the second generation of his TRDR handset, he’s putting his faith in an AI-driven personal assistant built into the device. Think Alexa or Siri but designed specifically for young people.

When I caught up with O’Connor last week, I was keen to discuss his plans for launching a console into a somewhat curious corner of the consumer electronics market.

Music And Trading

Now 29 years old, O’Connor cut his entrepreneurial teeth with the launch of music social media site, Micsu (later Mozrt), which he launched in 2012. That was followed by the creation of Trad3R, a social trading app.

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Go Games is a very different kind of business. At the heart of it is the design and manufacture of a hardware product. So what inspired O’Connor to enter the consumer electronics market?

Well, it actually had a lot to do with the ubiquity of Nintendo handsets. “My parents split up when I was a child,” he recalls. “My uncle gave me a Gameboy— that’s one of my youngest memories.”

Although he had very little interest in video consoles, such as Playstation, the Gameboy was an important part of his childhood. So much so, that his ambition now is to provide today’s children and teenagers with something that will be equally iconic and memorable.

Having secured investment from, among others, Lord Paul Deighton, who chairs the Economist Group and Heathrow Airport, and his wife Lady Deighton, Go Games says it has a current valuation of £250 million. Now, that’s a fairly big number for a young venture, so what is it about the company’s TRDR Series 2 console that gives it commercial potential in the handheld marketplace? Or to put it another way, if a consumer has several hundred pounds to spare, why wouldn’t they simply buy a Nintendo?

AI Sauce

O’Connor says the secret sauce is AI. The TRDR handset’s inbuilt digital assistant is designed to provide audio support for its target audience. “You might ask Siri or Alexa to recommend a local restaurant,” says O’Connor. “TRDR’s. AI can answer questions like how to make friends with a kid at school.”

So, in addition to the games, social apps and streaming facilities that you might expect from an android-based console, a kind of companionship is part of the mix. There are three AI-driven audio assistants available, all boasting their own names and personalities. New users take a personality test and are then matched with the right bot. All of which sounds a little like the Hogwarts sorting hat.

O’Connor says the device was designed from the ground up— not just the software-driven AI, but also the machine itself. Was this a challenge? O’Connor says no. “From a technical perspective most of us have built computers, so we know about the core components.” The real challenge, he adds, was finding components that could be slotted into a small form factor.

As he acknowledges, there was a learning curve, but that, he says, was an advantage. “If you know too much about the technical challenge, it could put you off doing it,” he says. “If you don’t know about all the technical challenges, but have a strong desire to do something, you press ahead with it.”

On the software side, the task was to create AI personae that displayed real empathy and that could carry on learning about their users and their problems. O’Connor says a machine-learning-based development program has created a software solution that can engage in natural-sounding conversations and even inject human attributes such as empathy and humor. A kind of digital friend. O’Connor adds that the system is set to pass the Turing Test, meaning that its responses are indistinguishable from that of a human for at least of the time. This is not something I confirm and a scheduled test at the Science Museum in London has been delayed.

Capturing Users

But will it capture the imagination of gamers?

Well, there’s some history to overcome. A quick read of some gaming websites suggests that the first generation of TRDR wasn’t universally well-received. Some gamers noted some distinct physical similarities with a rival (and considerably cheaper) handset, namely the Retroid Rocket. In fact, the shell was the same, but the company points out that the interior of the machine was differently specced with faster components. There was, however, some criticism of the controls and consequently the gameplay.

Nevertheless, an edition of the device, launched in association with rapper and influencer Soulja Boy achieved 10,000 orders on the first day and went on to sell around 100,000 units.

A New Category?

For the second generation unit, O’Connor says what he is looking at is the creation of a new category, a product that will change the market. He cites Apple as an inspiration. “When Apple launched the iPod, it was a product that we didn’t know we wanted,” he says. “But we adopted it.”

So is this an iPod moment in the gaming market? Well, initial distribution is online and through Amazon and the company is aiming to shop 250,000 units in the first 12 months. In addition to the digital assistant, there has been an upgrade. The new shell is metal rather than plastic and with upgraded electronics and a better screen.

The PR/marketing campaign has begun. For instance, the company has been investing in eye-catching events, such as the launch of two handsets into space (by balloon rather than rocket) and a London event involving the projection of images onto some of the capital’s landmarks. Ultimately, though, much will depend on the response of the gaming community.

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