Sat04192014

Mountain View on the Move

It's all in the cards: Mountain View startup revives building games


Niuniu teo/Special to the Town Crier
Evan Murphy, above left in green, and Michael Woods co-founded E&M Labs, with the goal of inspiring the next generation of engineers.

With the advent of video games, iPhone apps and social media, the golden days of toys and their makers may be in the past.

But Michael Woods and Evan Murphy, co-founders of E&M Labs of Mountain View, beg to differ.

The startup’s most popular product is named Skallops. A starter kit comprises two decks of standard playing cards, one red and one blue, and 104 Skallops, wooden half-circle, laser-cut clips that hold the cards. The cards can be bent, folded or torn, then assembled with the Skallops to form a variety of shapes, from a 20-foot playing card Eiffel Tower to life-sized penguins and small, ingeniously crafted card-figurines.

“It got to the point when we saw that we could make whatever we thought of,” Woods said. “Every time we give it to somebody to play with, they come up with something new.”

E&M products are built on the belief that the current educational system overlooks the learning-by-doing philosophy. The founders strive to provide that experience through their products.

“I have a philosophy,” Woods said. “In school, you learn all this theory, but you don’t actually get to get your fingers dirty until after college, maybe. Learning by doing often teaches you a lot you’d never get from school, just by showing you how things work.”

For example, by playing with Skallops, children as young as 5 or 6 years old realized that triangles and cross-hatching were the most effective ways to build strong structures.

Competing with video games

Despite the proven benefits of playing with building toys like Skallops, the dominance of video games and other electronic forms of entertainment is hard to overcome. Even to these two toymakers, it’s apparent that video games are here to stay.

For Murphy, the main goal now is to “create a product that complements video games – not one that tries to push them out of the market.”

“I think there’s a lot of interest among parents in non-Internet toys,” he said. “Initially there was a lot of backlash against video games, when a lot of the handheld gaming devices became popular.”

Woods and Murphy continue to believe that there is a need and a purpose that only building games can fulfill.

“The most basic thing you learn (from our product) is physical intuition, and how to work with your hands and with things,” Murphy said. “And I think that’s really important.”

According to Murphy and Woods, their product has gained a significant following among Google, Facebook and Palantir employees.

“Skallops is, I think, a lot more freeform than most video games,” Murphy said. “There’s a lot more room for creativity.”

E&M Labs is housed in a big warehouse on Whisman Road. The founders share quarters with two other startups – one designs dollhouses; the other, wireless locks.

Before they started E&M Labs, Woods worked on a research and development team at a high-tech company in Los Angeles and Murphy for a financial software company in New York. They both worked on a software startup three years ago.

“We were applying for real jobs, and we realized that if we don’t try something now, we’re never going to,” Woods said.

Woods added that opposed to other places he has worked, he prefers collaborating with a small group, where you see the entire mission.

“Whatever you’re doing, you’ve chosen to do it,” he said.

E&M has a new product scheduled to launch in a few months.

“We’re going to continue focusing on physical, freeform products that are fun and create storytelling opportunities,” Woods said.

E&M Labs is located at 170 S. Whisman Road, Building D, Suite A, Mountain View. For more information, visit www.em-labs.com.

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