When Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC) kicks off in San Jose on June 3, there will be a lot of new apps that will vie for global attention because of multiple factors. The ones under the spotlight are usually those that have stunningly simple designs, have used the best of Apple’s ecosystem and products to add value to the user and, of course, apps that the world already loves.
Of late, India has been making bit of an impact on stage at WWDC. Chennai-based developer Raja Vijayaraman’s Calzy won the Apple Design Award for a re-imagination of the calculator app last year. Ever since Apple set up its Accelerator for developers in Bangalore, the Indian ecosystem has benefited tremendously with many apps garnering global attention and some, like Froggipedia, veering towards commercial success too.
This year, don’t be surprised if you see more Indian developers on stage, or at least becoming the centre of attention in the smaller huddles at the McEnery Convention Center. There are some good contenders like What the Fish by Bangalore-based Smart Hunch and StarChef from Udupi-based 99 Games which could possibly be the big mobile gaming success India has been waiting for. Then there are apps like Wysa, Food Book, RushARound and VectorPad that use the best of Apple’s Machine Learning and Augmented Reality prowess to solve everyday problems.
Four years after its original launch, Star Chef is nearing the end of its lifecycle. But the popular game has generated close to $25m in revenue, Rohith Bhat, founder and CEO of 99Games tells indianexpress.com.
“Star Chef is a cooking and restaurant management game where people can choose to pace the engagement based on time availability. The average game play time in the game has been 30+ minutes over the years and we have players playing this game with same amount of love even after 3 years,” explains Bhat, who’s team is now working on a sequel.
99Games is also tapping into AI/ML to “understand player behaviour and drive in-game event offers accordingly”, says Bhat. Star Chef’s is a bigger success because it was among the first Indian games to make it big with the freemium model. “When we launched back in 2014, this was one of our first freemium games,” say Bhat, underlining how the team had to learn everything.
“We had to marry the art of game making with the data science and deliver a great customer experience. There isn’t a lot of talent that understands all this in India so we had to learn everything along the way,” he says, adding how like most Indian games the most for Star Chef too has been in-app and that too from outside India.
Ramakant Vempati, the creator of Wysa, an anonymous, free and clinically assured AI coach for mental health, says he came up with the concept from his own personal experience with depression. “I found that it really helped to talk through my negative thoughts and reframe them to more useful ones. It seemed like everyone could use a place to vent their worst thoughts and feelings and learn how to deal with them,” explains Vempati, who thought an AI bot could perhaps slip into that role.
“The idea of a chatbot doing therapy was not a new one. The first chatbot, in fact was called ELIZA and was a parody of a Rogerian therapist. We thought of making something like ELIZA, but actually WISER, and that’s where the name WYSA came from.”
The WYSA apps has been written by psychologists and life coaches. The creator says one in four people deal with mental health issues, but between stigma, cost, and lack of resources, very few get support and treatment. “We wanted to scale early support for mental health, to help people build skills for their emotional wellbeing, especially in times of stress and change when they are at most risk,” he adds.
While WYSA works only with the Internet at the moment, Vempati knows that he has to move it offline, residing on the phone itself, to truly scale up. “This is where we are working with Core ML to make it possible to support people even when they are online.”
Chennai-based indie studio Jambav’s RushARound is an Augmented Reality multiplayer game designed to help everyone get fitter. So players have to actually move around and run on an augmented clock to score points, burning calories in the process. This also means RushARound is among the first-ever AR games integrated with Apple’s HealthKit.
Creator Rajaram Santhanam says they were intrigued when ARKit2 was announced at WWDC 2018. “We used to hear complaints like, playing games on mobile/pc/consoles makes people lazy, and we thought with Apple’s ARKit technology, we can break that. And we achieved it with RushARound,” he explains.
SmartHunch, meanwhile, made use of the True Depth Camera on Apple’s latest iPhones to taking mobile gaming to a whole new level. “On devices with True Depth Camera (iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max, iPhone XR and iPhone X) you can play the game with your eyes. When you close your eyes, fish pumps up energy to jump. When you open your eyes, the fish jumps,” explains Namit Nangia who founded the Bangalore startup in 2016. Nangia says the idea was to bring a new experience for the players.
“Apart from inspiring this game, ARKit takes care of the complex work of figuring out when the player closes eyes, and for how long and lets me focus on creating the experience I want players to have,” he adds.
However, dealing with cutting edge technology has not been all that easy for these developers. Nangia says his biggest challenge was getting player feedback during the initial development. “Apple’s WWDR team helped out and tested a lot of variations of gameplay of the game. I got awesome feedback that helped me enhance gameplay and user experience of the game.”
For Jambav, the struggle was also working with new technology. “So we couldn’t get much info on the usually reliable Internet. But, thanks to Apple Documentation, we were able to pull this off within three months and launch the game at the same time as Apple’s official release of ARKit2 to the public.” The game is now a huge hit. Rajaram quotes one of the players, who said it was time people played RushARound instead of PUBG during office breaks.
WYSA’s challenge was different. “It is challenging as a human to know how to respond when people share their distress. The problem is many fold when it is a bot.” But analysing over 80 million conversations, Vempati says, they were able to get some significant insight. “For instance, the techniques that work when one is sad because of a failure, don’t work when one is grieving for the loss of a loved one. For each case, we had to work with psychologists to figure out better paths. Now we have over 100 different tools and techniques on the app,” says Vempati, who’s biggest success has been those who have reached out to say how the app helped save their lives. “There is nothing more meaningful than that.”