EPFL spin-off makes its mark in virtual reality

OZWE Games – an EPFL spin-off that develops virtual-reality games – won the 2019 Swiss National Business of the Year Award and will be one of the companies representing Switzerland in the European Business Awards finals on 3–4 December.
Frédéric Kaplan and Stéphane Intissar © 2019 EPFL Alain Herzog

In early September, OZWE Games was named Business of the Year at the 2019 European Business Awards. That means it will represent Switzerland in its category in the European Business Awards finals in Warsaw on 3–4 December, going up against 34 other national finalists from across Europe.

Stéphane Intissar, the CEO of OZWE Games, is confident about his company’s prospects: “We have an unconventional business model. Virtual reality is a promising, high-growth market and the number of applications is increasing rapidly – especially in healthcare and architecture. Within this market, OZWE Games has made a name for itself around the world.”

The company is based in Lausanne and has 11 employees. It is an official partner of Oculus, the US maker of virtual reality headsets, which is now owned by Facebook. OSWE’s games are designed for use exclusively with Oculus’ headsets and technology.

Motion-based games without the motion sickness

OZWE Games is specialized in motion-based games, where players move around in a virtual world. The drawback to these games is the motion sickness that some people experience while playing – but the firm has found a solution for that. “Our control system prevents the motion sickness that affects some players,” says Intissar. He won’t say more about the underlying technology, which is a competitive advantage that his company is keeping under wraps.

OZWE Games’ first release, Anshar Wars, was highly successful when it came out in 2014 – and it caught the attention of Oculus. Other games have followed, including VRtillery, Anshar Wars 2, Anshar Online and – coming soon – Death Lap. “Our technological capabilities have now reached the stage where we can develop games that are both powerful and aesthetically appealing. I hope our success will continue,” says Intissar.

OZWE’s three phases of development

OZWE Games was founded as OZWE in 2008 by EPFL professor Frédéric Kaplan and Martino d’Esposito, an industrial designer. Their idea was simple: invent a computer that could be controlled remotely using hand gestures, without needing a keyboard or mouse. “We started working on it in 2006, when this was a novel concept. That was before Kinect. A small number of engineers were experimenting with technology that enabled users to see environments in 3D, but nothing had been invented yet,” says Kaplan.

Their first machine, QB1, consists of a screen and a 3D camera in a neck-like structure. It can be controlled remotely with gestures, and it tracks users visually by surrounding them with an interactive halo. Samsung and Logitech purchased early versions of the QB1, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York included the machine in one of its exhibitions.

In 2010, OZWE shifted its focus and decided to apply its interface expertise to the brand new iPad tablet market by developing eBook reader apps for iPads and iPhones. The company partners with BBStudio, a design and publishing agency and develops interactive books under the Bookapp.com brand. “We wanted to become a leading player in the transition from printed documents to electronic interfaces,” says Kaplan. “We contacted several publishing houses and quickly ramped up our expertise in this area. We eventually became the market leader in Switzerland and established a foothold in the French market.” That’s when Intissar joined the team. Kaplan recalls: “We hired Stéphane because we needed a video-games specialist, since some of Bookapp.com’s programs – like children’s books and virtual museum tours – had immersive, 3D environments.”

In 2014, OZWE became OZWE Games and Intissar replaced Kaplan as the company’s CEO. “I’d just been appointed an assistant professor at EPFL and didn’t have as much time to devote to the company,” says Kaplan. “This also led OZWE to re-focus on games.”

The European Business Awards The European Business Awards were established in 2007 to recognize the best businesses in Europe in terms of innovation and ethical practices. In this year’s edition, 363 companies are competing for awards in 18 different categories. The finals will be held in Warsaw on 3–4 December. Switzerland will be represented by the winners of the Swiss National Business Awards: OZWE Games (Business of the Year Award), senseFly (Digital Technology Award), AFT GmbH (Award for Innovation), Tropical Mountains (Social Responsibility and Environmental Awareness Award), and Matterhorn Diamonds (Customer and Market Engagement Award).