SpellBound Launches Indiegogo Campaign, Prepares Public App Release

An Ann Arbor, MI-based augmented reality startup born out of Startup Weekend Detroit, which made a splash at last year’s CES, spent most of 2015 settling in and preparing for the next phase of growth.

Now SpellBound, formerly known as MagicBook, is getting ready for the public release of its mobile app—which turns children’s books into virtual, interactive, 3D pop-up experiences—and is running an Indiegogo campaign to help raise awareness of the app and simultaneously donate books to C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor.

SpellBound readers can use their phones or tablets as viewfinders to scan a book’s pages, activating interactive layers on the device that include sound and 3D images. Most other products in this space require special books that have codes or other technologies that tell the phone what to do. SpellBound works by recognizing an image or specific text instead.

After CES, SpellBound’s founders, Christina York and Marjorie Knepp, launched an intensive customer discovery process and raised enough money from friends and family to finish building iOS and Android versions of the app before running it through a closed beta test. York said she and Knepp had an “a-ha moment” when they were talking to a parent and potential SpellBound customer about how she uses technology in her home.

It turned out this particular parent was a therapist at Mott Children’s Hospital, and she helped the SpellBound creators understand the soothing power of technology in a children’s hospital, where it’s often used to help kids deal with the trauma associated with illness and prolonged hospitalization. Their conversation unearthed a new use case for the app.

“Things like tablets or iPods can be used as a distraction during painful procedures, or to help acclimate a patient or keep their spirits up,” York explained. “Often, these patients are in isolation, and our app would be able to engage them on so many sensory levels. It’s really exciting both for us and for them.”

After making its app available to Mott, SpellBound did a small pilot to make sure the books were as useful as its founders imagined. Now, the company is running a crowdfunding campaign through January 28 to get copies of Sleep Sweet, the first book that will be compatible with the SpellBound app, in the hands of young patients at Mott. SpellBound hired the book’s author, Julianne DiBlasi Black, to record audio of herself reading her story for the app, and it had special music composed as well. (See the video below for a better idea of what Sleep Sweet looks like when read with SpellBound.)

Although this is SpellBound’s first attempt at a crowdfunding campaign, York would like to do another, she said, if “this model proves successful, maybe for schools without tablets or devices.” Education was not a market SpellBound had initially planned to go after because the company thought it would be a long, cumbersome process involving a lot of relationship-building.

“Then we heard from so many teachers with brilliant ideas for how to apply our technology,” York said. “It surprised us, because we thought reaching schools would be hard, but teachers are so hungry to incorporate more technology into the classroom. We’re excited to learn more from them and hear ideas from kids, too. We watched kindergartners in the classroom use our app, and it was a great way to test our product.”

SpellBound now has a number of school pilots running, including one in Texas with educators that teach their colleagues how to add more technology to their lesson plans.

After the app is released publicly, SpellBound has four or five more books it’s getting app-ready after Sleep Sweet. (The charmingly titled Albert the Confused Manatee will likely be the second SpellBound book.) York said the company plans to pursue seed funding soon. York and Knepp are the only full-time employees for now, but SpellBound has a number of part-time developers and animators on staff.

York said so far, building a startup in Michigan has gone better than she or Knepp expected.

“Detroit and Ann Arbor are amazing communities with a great support system, advisors, and mentors,” she added. “Starting a tech company in Michigan is super do-able even if it isn’t related to the auto industry. SpellBound started as an idea at Startup Weekend, and now we’ve both quit lucrative jobs to make this a real business.”

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