eMerge Americas

A start-up's new app lets you fight dragons in augmented reality while helping track airplanes

An augmented reality overlay showing a Norwegian Air flight as a dragon.
VarDragon
An augmented reality overlay showing a Norwegian Air flight as a dragon.

Keep your eyes to the sky for any passing dragons — tech start-up VarDragons is crafting a smartphone augmented reality game that replaces passing aircraft with the mythical creatures players can capture, raise and fight.

The Miami-based company that's showcasing at the eMerge Americas conference hopes to tap into the multibillion-dollar online game market with an app that turns passing planes into dragons — and helps deploy a network of plane-watching antennas.

Players point the phone's camera at airplanes in the sky to see dragons that can be captured and trained. Like the wildly successful augmented reality game Pokémon Go, VarDragons overlays an image of a dragon on top of passing aircraft that can be interacted with.

Each dragon will take on characteristics and cues unique to the aircraft's livery, country and even flight path — a short-haul Airbus operated by Lufthansa, for instance, might be displayed as a small European-style dragon with yellow-and-blue markings, while a long-haul Norwegian Air flight could show up as a large Nordic-style dragon with a red head.

Behind the scenes, the app matches the player's location and orientation to real-time flight information from sources like FlightAware to determine details about the plane.

Dragons can be captured, modified, played and armed while the corresponding plane is in the air, but they can only be raised and trained when at a nest — when its real-world counterpart is at an airport. "We're trying to incentivize people to collect more," founder and CEO Thomas Byrd said in an interview with CNBC.

To build a larger collection of dragons, players can pay to tap into a network of "Magic Talons" — glass orbs about the size of a softball, specially designed for the game. The orbs are in fact ADS-B antennas, receivers that pick up the broadcasts airplanes are legally required to send while in flight.

The VarDragons softball-sized "Magic Talon" ADS-B antenna.
VarDragon
The VarDragons softball-sized "Magic Talon" ADS-B antenna.

The talon is a clever way of deploying an ad hoc network of the receivers, which can help locate aircraft in real time and help detect trouble before it affects planes. VarDragons was started in 2016 by aerospace engineer and former USMC intelligence officer Thomas Byrd (CEO), military defense consultant and former U.S. Army Intelligence Officer Jason Keasler (CFO) and software developer expert and electrical engineer Joe Rjeili (CTO).

VarDragons is in fact a spinoff of the team's earlier start-up, AlulA, founded after the 2014 disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 over the Indian Ocean. To create a wide network of ADS-B antennas, the team created VarDragons to incentivize users to set up and maintain the receivers.

A booming online-game marketplace

Miami-based VarDragons is hoping to tap into a huge market for online games and in-app purchases and expects to launch its app next year. Smartphone game microtransactions totaled $32.8 billion worldwide in 2016, according to research firm Euromonitor International.

The game may appeal to a cross-section of aviation enthusiasts, smartphone users and early adopters of augmented reality, said Matthew Hudak, a toys and games analyst at Euromonitor International.

"I don't think it's going for the mass-market level that Pokémon Go achieved," said Hudak. "I think by going immediately a little bit smaller, it's easier to obtain." The main audience, says Hudak, is going to be aviation enthusiasts and early adopters to AR, but the price point of $85 per talon may raise some doubts.

"We're trying to create a mixed-reality experience." -Thomas Byrd, CEO, VarDragons

"Those [devices] are for the die-hards," says Hudak. "The reason why [microtransactions are] so big is because you don't have to eat that upfront cost. You're snacking a lot, and you overeat because you don't realize you're eating so much of it."

VarDragons, however, is aiming less for the enthusiast and more for the casual gamer, likening their appeal to Bandai's Tamagotchi games. The company hopes to mix in the best elements of Pokémon Go to create virtual pets for a new generation.

"We're trying to create a mixed-reality experience," says Byrd, adding that his company is trying to replicate the innocent joy of watching airplanes fly by. "We want people to wonder again what those little dots [in the sky] are."