What happened with S.M.I.L.E. after VR NOW - from prototype to founding a company

Interview with Michael Schranner, Creative Producer of S.M.I.L.E.


The project team of S.M.I.L.E. was able to score a place in the VR NOW talent development initiative and was allowed to develop its prototype at Animationsinstitut from April to December last year. The result was a hidden object book for children which, thanks to Augmented Reality (AR), comes to life and provides interactive gaming fun. With the help of the VR NOW partner MFG Baden-Württemberg and the entrepreneurial qualification program, the success story of S.M.I.L.E. could be continued this year.


More about "Founding in times of Corona" can be found in the podcast of MFG Baden-Württemberg "Freie Wildbahn" (German only). The two VR NOW participants Florian Denning and Michael Schranner talk about the challenges of founding a company in this special time. Tune in!


On Friday, July 17, the S.M.I.L.E. team will present their project to a broad industry audience at SCREEN.TIME international. Be there and gain exclusive insights into this exciting project! After the pitch, the team will also be available for a small Q&A round. Click here for the SCREEN.TIME international programme.



We talked to Michael Schranner, Creative Producer of S.M.I.L.E., about the project, current plans and important lessons.


Michael, how are you, the team and the project in these very special times?


We're doing very well. We are not idle, but are working in several directions - both on existing projects but also on new ideas and plans.



First, let's talk about S.M.I.L.E.: If you look back to the beginning of the project, on old concept drafts and the early phase of the VR NOW mentoring program - how does it feel from today's perspective?


In retrospect, that feels pretty good. I found this metamorphosis that everything went through very exciting. On the one hand ourselves, on the other hand the project: the title has changed, the concept has been overturned several times - a lot has happened. Also, for example, the change to a more corporate mindset. When I think back, I realize: "Wow- it's only been a year and it feels as if you were a completely different person back then and S.M.I.L.E. a completely different project." But it was really a positive metamorphosis.

Click here for the S.M.I.L.E. Experiencetrailer.



When you left Animationsinstitut with your prototype a good half year ago, it consisted of a beautiful, large hidden object picture of your illustrator Jasmin Dreyer, on which your protagonist Lisa has to ensure more ecological sustainability on the so called garbage planet. And an Augmented Reality (AR) app, which allows users to bring this image to life and help Lisa with her tasks. What has happened since then?


S.M.I.L.E. as hidden object book and AR app is on hold due to the current situation. During the preparation for the Frankfurter Buchmesse last year, we had already found a publisher with whom we want to carry out the project together. We are currently waiting to see how the industry develops, but we expect to resume talks in September. There is a great deal of interest in innovation on the side of the publishing house and a kind of future-oriented approach, which is very positive for us. This is a deal on equal terms, so the risk is shared. So we are in the starting blocks with S.M.I.L.E., waiting to get started immediately as soon as the final deal with the publisher is concluded.



You mentioned the Frankfurter Buchmesse. Parallel to VR NOW, you were invited as a participant in the MFG support programme Ideentanke to present your creative solutions at the fair and to network with the industry. What experiences did you make there?


I think the most important thing was actually the preparation for the book fair. Knowing that this date is breathing down our necks, for which we have to stand by with a finished prototype and a business model, simply forced us to deal with everything very intensively - to present professionally and to be able to convince the publishers. It was also crucial to make sure that we made appointments with the publishers in good time. At the fair itself, only illustrators can attend the so-called "Illustrators' Office Hours" - long queues to stand in line for hours with portfolios, in order to be able to introduce themselves to an art director for 5 minutes.

With a lot of effort, we made appointments in advance with the contact persons relevant to us and then had eight or nine great meetings. The contacts that have been established during these meetings are still in place. And also with the publishers, who ultimately did not decide in favour of our project - from which new projects can grow in the future.



By the way, Michael started his own business with Lukas Karwan, who was responsible for the conception at S.M.I.L.E. With Lumium the two created their own "Lukas und Michael-Universum", with which they want to bring light into the grey area between the analogue and digital world. Click here for the website.

New ideas and plans, new projects - let's get down to business: What are you currently working on?


We have two large new projects next to the S.M.I.L.E. publication. One is the development of a media education tool. This is to create a badge, similar to the swimming badges for kids, for children's mobile phone use. Often there is a great uncertainty about "swimming" in the media. We want to help out here and define a kind of "non-swimmer area" for children and parents. This should result in different levels - from non-swimmers to floats and badges to the higher school age. We are currently working on this educational concept and its implementation.

The second project is the so-called "School of Empathy", where empathy-related skills can be trained in Virtual Reality (VR). This means a combination of VR with psychology and prosocial training. Workshops are to be offered - for example an anti cyber bullying training, a diversity training/anti-racism training or a leadership training. The aim here is not only to cognitively understand how to deal with other people, but also to do so on an emotional level. For this purpose we are currently expanding our team with a technical engineer and another programmer. Our goal is to couple the VR headset with neurofeedback.

In addition to these projects, we also want to develop an AR framework that can be used to produce AR content in a cost-effective and time-efficient way. In our case, this means that we can transfer what we have developed in the VR NOW talent development initiative to other case studies.



You have applied for the federal computer games funding with the project "School of Empathy". Are there already any news about this?


Officially you have to go through three stages, even if it felt like much more. We submitted the application with a project outline in September 2019 (stage 1). Then follows the much more detailed application (Stage 2) and then Stage 3, in which detailed statements were made on specific points and a lively exchange of opinions took place. We are currently still waiting for the approval, which is expected to come in October.



Fingers crossed! For a conclusion: Which tip would you give to other young beginners in the field of mixed reality? Is there a "Do" and a "Don't"?


The big "Do" is clearly the implementation of an agile project management. For us this has become a matter of attitude: You have to think in "sprints", set yourself small weekly goals and then test them so that you can discard them again in case of doubt.

As a "don't" I can pass on the following: Don't let pessimists hold you back! There will always be people who question your concept on the phone or after a presentation and want to talk you out of it. Don't let this discourage you and believe in your idea.

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