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OUYA Android Console CEO Julie Uhrman Interview: The story so far

If anyone was keeping tabs on the quickest Kickstarter projects to reach their pledge totals, OUYA would be somewhere near the top having notched up the required $950,000 in just a single day.

Money raised for the hackable Android games console that will cost $99 to buy, is now past the $5.5m mark with still a few weeks to go until the Kickstarter door slams shut.

OUYA seems to have divided the gaming community, but T3 is definitely intrigued to see what’s in store from a console that has the backing of high profile figures in the tech industry including Jambox designer Yves Béhar and Xbox co-creator Ed Fries.

So what does the company make of its Kickstarter success status? We put our questions to Julie Uhrman, CEO of OUYA to find out more about the console and what is next for the console set to bring Android gaming to your TV.

What is it about the Ouya that you think has captured the public’s imagination to the tune of nearly $6m?

There is a surprise factor. For many folks, we came out of nowhere. And we took on some big companies—nobody really does that.

The console model as it exists today has been around for years. When OUYA burst on to the scene, we challenged the status quo. We had new ideas about how consoles could work. I think people were ready to hear about a new approach. But when you think about it, our idea isn’t so crazy.

In fact, in this Joystiq article, Notch himself was quoted saying:

“I am quite frankly surprised this hasn’t happened earlier. Me and plenty of other people have tried connecting small PCs to their TVs and plugging in controllers in an attempt to get an open TV gaming experience that they can control, but there’s been constant interface and infrastructure problems with that. And frankly, the only really good use of it was to run emulators. Something like OUYA could solve a lot of these issues, making it easier to find and navigate between content, and putting a good community in place around it.”

What was the germ of an idea that turned into Ouya? Who had it, what prompted it and how long has it taken to get to this point?

I grew up playing games on the TV and I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that the console game industry has experienced a brain drain in recent years and some of the most talented developers have switched focus from the TV to mobile and social.

Game developers will say that there are just too many hassles in getting a game on to the existing console systems, the process is expensive and it’s very time and resource intensive.

For gamers, we witnessed prices rise with each console cycle. Gaming was pricing some people out of the market. I hate the idea of people not being able to enjoy great games because of cost. I wanted to open up games to a broader audience.

Ultimately, I wanted to bring great games back to the TV and make gaming more accessible. We believe the TV provides the best gaming experience, from the HD-quality graphics to earth-shattering surround sound to the lean-back 10-foot experience.

When I read about another system using Android, it occurred to me that that might be a solution. And because tech was so much more powerful and accessible, I began to rethink some of the other “standard operating procedures” we see in the console market. For example, we realized that we could use a standard chipset instead of the custom chipsets that console makers have been using for more than 20 years.

Custom chipsets are no longer necessary in today’s age of powerful, accessible tech and by eliminating them you can drive down the cost of a console significantly.

As the idea started to solidify, I reached out to friends and colleagues in the game industry, well-known game designers and great tech entrepreneurs. Everyone was really enthusiastic. We’ve been jamming on things ever since.

What are the benefits of Kickstarter? Do you see it as much as a marketing platform as a finance-raising one?

First I want to make sure that folks understand that we absolutely needed Kickstarter to raise the money to finish the product. Our decision to use Kickstarter was in no way a marketing move or a pre-sell effort. This wasn’t a marketing type move.

That said, the fact is crowd-funding certainly has viral social benefits. And, Kickstarter has been fantastic for us because it allowed us to engage in direct conversations with both game developers and future customers. It’s very unusual to have such frequent and candid interaction with such a large percentage of your target market while your product is still in development. We’ve really benefitted from those conversations.

We’ve taken notes on the feedback, we’ve tried to answer questions responsively and we’ve even been grateful for the skeptics and the critics because we feel like they challenge us to be at the top of our game.

We’re just about halfway through our Kickstarter campaign but we’re already using those Kickstarter comments to inform and improve our efforts.

Although the Ouya runs Android, presumably it will not run Google Play and will have a locked Ouya interface?

We don’t intend to run Google Play. OUYA run out of the box will feature an OUYA front end.

Piracy is often a concern with open-source hardware. What measures are you incorporating to allay publisher fears?

OUYA will be just as secure as any other Android-powered device.

In fact, because all the paid content will require authentication with OUYA’s servers, we have an added layer of security. Hacking and openness are about getting what you want to do with the hardware. Rooting the device won’t give you any more access to the software.

How would you respond to some of the criticism from the gaming press that Ouya is simply isn’t sustainable?

We are going to do this. The hardware is straightforward. This is not rocket science: the tech is pretty standard stuff but the magic is in how we will combine and maximize standard tech to deliver a great experience. By using standard guts, we can keep the cost low.

Cost it out yourself: This can be done for $99. Don’t believe it works? We’ve already got a functional prototype: In our Kickstarter video you see me playing Shadowgun on it.

What is pretty innovative is the developer proposition, the business model and the design. The developer proposition and business model they are new to the console space, but are already being tested in the mobile market.

We didn’t invent these concepts; we’re just applying them to consoles. The concept of Openness—that was important to us, and it’s a really new idea for the console market. But again it’s not something we created. If anything we felt that that was the way tech was headed. And we wanted to bring it to a new place: console gaming.

We’re psyched to have Yves Behar and fuseproject on board to design the console and controller. He could probably do this project in his sleep. He’s already got some impressive stuff on his resume: Jawbone headset, Herman Miller’s groundbreaking Leaf LED lamp, a line of lifestyle goods for Mini, the reinvention of Birkenstocks, a chandelier for Swarovski, and the news-making $100 laptop with MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte. I think he can handle our little project.

As for production, we’ve got that covered too. We’ve been talking to some of the leading ODMs. They have vetted our plans and are bidding on our business. We are close to picking a partner to manufacture our console and controllers.

This is not a project we entered into blindly. We crunched a lot of numbers and vetted the bill of materials with experts. We shared our plans with our advisors, including Amol Sarva who developed the Peek email device at a similarly low cost.

We were also careful the number of consoles we can make available for March. We could have launched with an unlimited number – but we have only listed what we are confident we can deliver. (80,000 consoles at the $99 reward level on Kickstarter.) What’s available is already almost half sold out.

If all we’d done was hit our goal, we could have brought OUYA to market. But now, because of Kickstarter we can point to an audience of nearly 50,000 game fans that believe in our mission. I have to think that there are thousands of others who have heard about us, maybe didn’t open their wallets to back us but want us to succeed nonetheless. We’re committed to making all those people proud.

This is a pretty unique idea and for many it came out of nowhere. We know that there are going to be critics and skeptics who challenge our concept. And, until we have a product on the market that people can put their hands on, we’ll have to be ok with that.

Those critics and skeptics are going to need to think similarly: until we are on the market they can’t say for sure whether or not this idea will fly. I get that people want to review us now—like we are a final product being sold on store shelves –but that’s just not realistic. We are an early stage product and we turned to Kickstarter to take us from functional prototype to OUYAs in the living room. Because we hit that initial goal we’ll be able to do just that and then the questions will be answered.

For now, we are just going to stay the course: We are laser focused on delivering the best possible game experience on OUYA. We aren’t going to let a handful of naysayers distract us from the army of nearly 50,000 backers cheering us on. We want to make them proud.

What are your next steps now to fulfilling this reality?

We’ve got another 15 days on Kickstarter and the experience has been really wild. It’s amazing to think that we have nearly 50,000 people who have backed us and are cheering us on.

But we’re staying focused on our mission: We will build a beautiful, affordable console that provides a fantastic game play experience on your TV. Built on Android. Wrapped in an amazingly beautiful Yves Behar designed package.

Behind the scenes this means that we will continue conversations with great game makers and name brand retailers. We will gear up production and we will start jamming. We are not naïve enough to think that this will be easy but we do think that what we are doing is something worth doing. It’s very motivating to work hard on something you feel passionate about.

You can read more about OUYA Android console at Kickstarter.com/OUYA

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