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San Antonio Game Company Carves Out Niche in Ed Tech | #education | #technology | #training | #hacking | #aihp

(TNS) — The IMG Studio — a San Antonio-based video production, animation and video game development company — has been quietly carving out territory as one of the only game designers in the local tech scene.

The creative agency isn’t out to create game franchises like “Call of Duty” or “Madden NFL.” It’s not making battle royal games such as “Fortnite.” It isn’t trying to become the next iD Software — the Dallas-Fort Worth-based creator of the long popular “Doom” series. Its games don’t include gunfights or fantasy quests. And they’re not available on Xbox or PlayStation.

Rather, the studio, which occupies a 5,000-square-foot office on the Northwest Side, has found a niche: “Most of what we do is educational or through marketing firms,” said James Chandler, president of The IMG Studio’s interactive department.

“I know my place,” Chandler said, smiling. “I’m not going to compete against EA Sports or iD.”

In “Dog Dash,” a video game from 2021, Chandler created a digital yard where a dog runs away from its owner who wants to give it a bath. He partnered with the San Antonio Humane Society to draw attention to pet adoptions.

Similarly, in 2020, he worked with the local Education Service Center of the Texas Education Agency to design a mobile game called “Doctor Grammar,” which puts players in the role of the Golden Robot, created by a mad scientist to solve language puzzles. The game is playable in English and Spanish and meant for sixth through eighth grade students.

The IMG Studio CEO Heather Angel Chandler — James Chandler’s wife and an Alamo City native — founded the company in 2007, having been a TV reporter in Las Vegas and then at FOX 29 San Antonio for a decade.

Heather Chandler, 46, launched the company to tell stories through video, mostly in documentaries produced for clients, including the San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department and Methodist Healthcare. The firm has won four Lone Star EMMY Awards and numerous other prizes.

James Chandler, 44, joined the team in 2015 after working as a lead web developer for the San Antonio Express-News and a senior digital manager for Spurs Sports and Entertainment. He brought the idea to add virtual reality products and video game development to The IMG Studio’s repertoire.

“I’m more experienced with the traditional video, but he was showing me we could do video with 360-degree (virutal reality), and it was this different sensory storytelling experience which I thought was really cool,” Heather Chandler said. “We’re storytellers, and you could tell stories through video games. Technology is opening up this whole different way of communicating.”

In recent years, she has been leading the company’s animation and video production side, while he explores video game development, mobile apps and virtual reality. With 11 employees, their company is punching above its weight.

While the couple declined to disclose The IMG Studio’s annual revenue, they said it has averaged 17 percent revenue growth year over year since 2019. Its typical contract amount for a video game ranges from $50,000 to $100,000.

As video game companies have become pandemic winners, The IMG Studio has been generating revenue from a mix of niche clients, such as the San Antonio Food Bank and the “Don’t mess with Texas” campaign, which is aimed at reducing litter on roads and is managed by the Texas Department of Transportation.

Most recently, the company has been working on a recruiting game for AFWERX, the U.S. Air Force’s internal innovation accelerator.

“There is talent here, and we want to foster, get that industry going and support the San Antonio tech scene in that way,” Heather Chandler said.

The IMG Studio also dabbles in mobile applications for iOS- and Android-based devices.

In 2020, it began designing “NavNow,” a digital 3D map of the Henry B. González Convention Center, which guides users to restrooms, ATMs and conference rooms throughout the 514,000-square-foot building.

The IMG Studio also sells virtual reality-based games.

After years of work, the company in 2018 launched an immersive VR wheelchair basketball game for the Spurs’ nonprofit arm and South Texas Regional Adaptive and Paralympic Sports at Morgan’s Wonderland, a San Antonio theme park designed to be accessible to people with disabilities.

The IMG Studio also developed a VR safety training program for Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Texas Inc.’s production plant in South San Antonio.

“It’s full 360-degree immersed, and then we brought it into a game engine to make it interactive,” James Chandler said, adding that he showed the automaker an updated version of the training last month. “So, if I’m not wearing a hardhat, we could point that out.”

In San Antonio, which touts itself as “Military City USA,” he wants to work with government agencies, which continue to show interest in VR-based training.

The IMG Studio is working on a VR application for area law enforcement agencies for training officers “to recognize mental illness in a citizen and how to work with that individual to deescalate situations,” James Chandler said.

He’s also rooting for Capital Factory, the Austin-based accelerator that recently opened an office at the Port Tech Center + Arena on Port San Antonio’s campus. Capital Factory is bringing its Center for Defense Innovation program, created in 2019, here to further its mission to build partnerships between the private sector and the Defense Department.

“That’s where the money is at,” James Chandler said. “I hope that Capital Factory can forge those relationships, because unless you go through AFWERX these days, the military — which usually looks to large companies like Boeing for contracts — doesn’t go to small companies very often. For a small company to wait four years to get a contract doesn’t make sense.”

Looking back, he recalled the difficulties in making the VR wheelchair basketball game with technology that was bulky, limited and expensive.

“We thought it was a cool project, and we thought we would be so ahead of the curve,” he said. “But in time, we’re going to look back at this game and it’s going to look like ‘Pong.’”

Today, VR isn’t just for gamers. It’s becoming more commercialized, especially as companies and enthusiasts flock to the metaverse — the immersive version of the internet accessed via VR headsets, augmented reality glasses, phone apps or other devices. At about $300, the Meta Quest 2 — made by Meta Platforms Inc., formerly Facebook Inc. — is among the least expensive VR headsets available.

“The hardware is still not right there, but it’s getting closer,” James Chandler said.

“It’s been growing,” Heather Chandler said. “A lot of it is educating people about the applications. VR is weird, and you have to put it on your face, and it’s different. But it’s not just for gamer kids. It’s not gimmicky, but it has real applications in business. As that technology improves, we’ll see more of it.”

©2022 the San Antonio Express-News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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