Someone shells out hundreds, maybe even thousands of dollars for a smartwatch. Then what? Ariel Vardi doesn't have the answer, but he's confident after spending most of the last decade building games for cellphones that he can entertain people when they look down at a screen on their wrist.
Last May, Vardi and two former colleagues launched Little Labs Inc. They had met at Jamdat Mobile, a Los Angeles startup acquired by Electronic Arts that was considered a pioneer in flip-phone gaming.
Vardi convinced Kris McDonald and Michael Marchetti that smartwatches soon would become the center of people's digital lives and that they could be the Jamdat of the smartwatch era.
"Eventually, you'll be able to go to Starbucks, walk in without your phone and not feel naked," Vardi said. "I'm very bullish."
The trio have 30 years of collective game-making experience, from color-screen-less flip phones and clickwheel iPods to iPhones and Facebook.
They launched three smartwatch apps last year that that run an operating system designed by Google called Android Wear. Little TV shows funny animated clips. Tictalk is a messaging app. Facer lets users customize watch faces, and it became a hit. Vardi estimates about 100,000 people, or 10% of all people with an Android Wear device, downloaded it. This week, the company unveiled a watch face design contest with cash and watches available to the winners.
Little Labs' prototypes garnered an $850,000 investment from Los Angeles' venture capital firm CrossCut Ventures and the Amplify accelerator program, which is where the company is based a few blocks from Venice Beach. In April, Silicon Valley venture capitalists such as New Enterprise Associates, Lowercase Capital and Lightspeed Ventures put in $2.15 million.
The funding went toward building several apps for the Apple Watch. Vardi collected dozens of ideas in a folder on his computer, but the team chose a few that it guessed would have the broadest appeal and be technically feasible in a short time.
"People are buying expensive watches," McDonald said. "They will want something cool and exciting. They don't want to spend $700 and wait for notifications they could just get on the phone."
"Slots Time!" is the first app. Users spin a slot machine, including Pirate's Booty, Legends of Egypt and Wild West & More! People can join daily tournaments and win virtual currency. It's received positive feedback, Vardi said, declining to offer usage statistics.
Revenue sources found on smartphone games could be brought over, including charging for extra coins and features and selling ad space.
"Industrywide, you get into billions of dollars of revenue in a few short years," said Vardi, whose credits while at Electronic Arts include "Scrabble" and "Simpsons: Tapped Out."
The estimates count on both people wanting a computer wrapped around their wrist and desiring significantly more than app notifications and the time. But if that does happen, Little Labs says their agility -- that's even built into their name -- will give them several slots at the top of the download charts.
"We're a little strong, lean company," said McDonald. "And the labs portion, we definitely have the leeway to try new things."