What do NASA and Spiderman have in common? Morphsuits, and their new wearable technology
Wander into any city centre in the UK on a Saturday night or any fancy dress party and you’re likely to see one. Morphsuits - head-to-toe, brightly coloured tight spandex costumes - are synonymous with fun. Indeed, it is purported that the kissing of girls comes easier Morphsuit-clad.
Now, they are evolving and, with the help of a an ex-NASA engineer and Spiderman, are revolutionising the fancy dress market.
Fancy dress costumes aren’t renowned for being technologically advanced. Until now.
People can now impersonate their superheroes, fire Spiderman’s webbing, fire repulsors from their palms in Iron man style, and throw Captain America’s shield. All for less than a month’s gym membership.
Morphsuits has acquired a license to create Marvel costumes, and recently launched a range of costumes incorporating wearable technology and augmented reality, bringing the superheroes’ powers to life.
The patented innovation of integrating smartphone animations into Morphsuits was developed by ex-NASA engineer turned app developer and costume designer, Mark Rober.
Morphsuits was born just under five years ago when, wanting to spice up their weekend and do something different rather than just getting drunk, Gregor Lawson, 35, had a “lightbulb moment” that has not only changed his life, but changed the whole fancy dress costume industry.
Gregor said: “We are constantly asked to develop Marvel Morphsuits by our fans and we’re absolutely ecstatic to bring this range of official super hero costumes to comic fans and anyone who loves the idea of being a superhero.
“We have really pushed the industry forward here to deliver something never seen before; this is the ultimate in fancy dress costumes that have incredible impact. We haven’t quite cracked invincibility or accelerated healing yet, but we’re working on it.”
The idea for a Spiderman costume was inspired by customer feedback, and a desire to revolutionise the costume industry.
A good deal of hard work, meetings, and expense later and their Spiderman costume is born.
Gregor, co-founder and marketing director, says: “As a company, innovation is a massive focus. We set our staff homework and challenges, to be the best we can be. We needed a lot of focus for the Spiderman costume project, and we need to make the most of it”.
To that end, Morphsuits teamed up with Zappar, led by founder and managing director Caspar Thykier, to unleash augmented reality upon their costumes.
This basically means that costumes come to life, the bespoke animations for Marvel characters such as Spiderman, Iron Man, Wolverine and Captain America are activated, along with their super powers; you can sling webbing, fire repulsors, or unleash Adamantium claws when viewed through a smartphone or tablet.
Wearers simply select the relevant animation on the Morphsuits app on their iphone or Android and slip their smartphone handset into the specially engineered slot in the costume to complete the transformation “from hero to zero”.
Gregor sees the licence agreement with Marvel as a watershed moment for Morphsuits, and an enormous opportunity.
He said: “The iphone actually has a more powerful computer than some of the early Mars rover computers. The opportunity to incorporate smartphones in our industry is huge. It is not prohibitively expensive, so, within the next year or so, we want to make the most of the opportunity”.
Having now sold 1.2 million Morphsuits since the company’s inception in May 2009 and boasting a range of over 200 designs, styles and formats for every occasion, 21st century technology was always the logical next step.
China is their next move.
Gregor acknowledges the hugely increased spending power of the middle classes in China, and their opening up to Western influences.
Not long after creating Morphsuits with his flatmates, brothers Ali and Fraser Smeaton, in Dublin, Alibaba, a huge ecommerce business based in China, recognised its potential and began working with Gregor on optimizing his ideas.
He said: “The idea of a morphsuits did exist before 2009, but they weren’t great, you could barely see out of them and they were uncomfortable.
“So, after my lightbulb moment, we began making improvements with Alibaba. It was important to get the balance right between anonymity and and that special, fun element.”
Morphsuits claim to garner the wearer more attention and is a good laugh, “because you’re anonymous it brings out a more fun version of yourself (a bit like drinking 10 pints, for those underage, like eating 8 bags of skittles and chugging a quart of coke)”.
In fact, around Halloween 2012, a psychologist noted increased confidence and social skills in children wearing the outfits, and an “overall calming effect” in children with autism.
Morphsuits has developed special Halloween and Christmas costumes to attract a new demographic, as well as the 16-24 year olds who constitute the “bedrock of the business”, and who are responsible for most of Morphsuits’ sales.
Gregor said: “We are always on the hunt for new ideas. We are trying to appeal to more people, people who perhaps aren’t enamoured by spandex. We have developed a range of animated Christmas jumpers with burning log fires and snowing snowglobes, and we have a lot of food for thought regarding Halloween as we don’t have much time.
“We are also trying to appeal to the patriotic. The Six Nations rugby is going on at the moment, and St. Patricks day is very soon, so we are looking to take advantage.
“There is a long way to go, but people are passionate about Morphsuits.”
The company made £10.5 million in the last financial year, and the newly launched range of costumes - appearing to bring the superhero’s superpowers to life - is expected to provide substantial growth.
They will target new licenses in the coming year - “licenses are fundamental to the business’s future success”, deemed Gregor - and are also looking at new premises.
In July 2012, the Business Growth Fund invested £4.2 million into AFG Media, of which Morphsuits is a division, to help the company with international expansion and also the development of new products.
Morphsuits is headquartered in Edinburgh - Gregor, a former Procter & Gamble marketing executive, is based there - with a presence in London, California and New York.
Despite the black morphsuit being the company’s most popular colour, Gregor’s favourite, he admits, is Wolverine, because it “makes me look muscled!”
Whatever the future holds for Morphsuits, and Gregor Lawson, the introduction of wearable technology and augmented reality means it will be far from dull.
Caspar Thykier, of Zappar, said: “This is another groundbreaking example of using Zappar to bring a new product category to life. These Morphsuits are sure to put a smile on people’s faces!”