A few weeks ago I met Dan Wilson, founder and CEO of AfterDark Technolgies, an LED light-based sports experience that creates an immersive nighttime gaming experience for Ultimate Frisbee and Flag Football. Dan and I talked in depth about his product, which is evolving to use different sensors that display various colors when a completion or change of possession occurs. This may signal the end of conflicts due to lack of lights or funding to keep them on. Dan believes that the LED light-based solution will change sports and the way we play them, maybe to be utilized by Nike or Under Armour? We'll see.
1) Tell me about yourself, how you came up with the idea, and explain what pain point for the consumer it addresses?
Several years ago when I was playing sports in college with my friends, by the time we would get out of practice, we’d only have a few minutes left -- or no time at all--to play ultimate frisbee. We couldn’t see each other, our teammates, the opponents and the boundaries of the field. So, I bought a commercially-available LED-lit disk.
At that point, I thought there was a lot of fun stuff we can do that is more than with a disk. Now we've involved sensors so you can see when possession changes. Ultimate frisbee is a sport made up of fast-paced turnovers, so this was key. But it became more and more obvious that there are more idle fields that don’t have lights, so where we are now is really giving those kids and schools the opportunity to play there, or places like the beach where there are no lights, any time they want.
2) What went into your strategy to disrupt this space?
There are other companies that have lighted sports wear and equipment. Those are competitive, but we want to bring sports into the night by focusing on the interaction between the players and equipment. It's much more sophisticated and as an example, the flag football jerseys we’re working on light up when the player makes a reception and blinks when their flag is pulled.
Our sensors are Hall Effect Sensors and they can discern between a north and south magnetic field. One team has north, one has south and when a player catches the disk, a field is introduced to the sensor thus changing the color. It works well with the frisbee, but as we add sports, we’ll have to get creative with where we can place the sensors and other things we can add, such as bluetooth.
3) What would you say is your biggest challenge?
The design of the products is a challenge. You go through iterations and when it breaks, it's a good thing because you know how it broke, why, and you can then make the changes necessary to improve. Our biggest obstacles, though, include the speed at which I’m moving... I’d love to bring these products to market more quickly, but between myself and my engineer, there are only so many hours in a day. Besides securing the first round of investments, I think we have our work cut out for us.
4) After you have been through building, strategizing and launching the product, do you think you would do this again?
I would do it again and plan to do it again. It’s unlikely it will be my life’s project, but I’d love to do something that has more of an impact, such as something in the medical field. My first prototype of the frisbee was in December of 2012. There were a series of four LEDs and Hall Effect Sensor glued and strapped to the bottom of frisbee. It’s been a roller coaster ride for sure: the first demo game went well, there have been a few roadblocks, and here we are. What I’ve enjoyed most about the process is learning. I've learned about circuit design, electrical engineering, CAD programs and 3D printing. There are a lot of different things we could’ve done differently, but then the product may have changed drastically, so we're happy with the way it is today with, of course, a lot of room for improvement.
5) What do you think the future of your product is? How do you define success?
As I progress through the business, I think I'll define success in two ways. I think getting the products into the hands of the players beyond the demos I'm doing to a point where they'll be globally used is one measure of success. Another would be as an asset to a larger brand's portfolio. If I just sold and promoted the product in licensing partnership with brands such as Nerf or Nike, that would be great, too, so we'll see what happens.
Bonus: What is the funniest or most awkward story you have around the product?
This has happened a couple times now, but when we tell people what we do or pitch ideas to potential investors, they're nervous with the name, because they think it refers to an adult entertainment company. After assuring them that it is in no way related, we share a laugh and its almost a really good ice breaker.