Meet the team that lets you instantly turn your pictures into pixels… Pixicade inventors Martin and Alysha Horstman

Martin Horstman, Alysha Horstman, Pixicade
Martin and Alysha… Welcome! You’re the founders of BitOGenius and the inventors of Pixicade. It looks fantastic! Before we talk about that, what’s the relationship here? Husband and wife?

Martin: Hi Deej, thanks! It’s great to be with you. We’re happy to see you’re as excited about Pixicade as we are! Yes – we’re husband and wife; happily married since 2008! We really consider ourselves partners in every adventure we come across.

Part of me’s scared to ask in case I get two different answers… But how easy is it to work alongside a spouse in this way?
Martin: Ha, an understandable concern! It’s actually really nice to work with my wife. We love working on projects together, so it’s great to be able to do that as a full time job. It’s something we’ve dreamed of for a long time.

Alysha: We also have different roles at work, and different strengths and weaknesses – so we complement each other really well. Martin and I are like a peanut butter cup. Chocolate and peanut butter on their own are great, but they’re amazing together like Martin and me.

Martin Horstman, Alysha Horstman, Pixicade
And what are your backgrounds? How did you come to be working in toys?

Martin: I’m a software engineer. I love building things and playing video games; I’m a kid at heart. I’ve also been programming video games as a hobby for over 15 years.

Alysha: I’m a Rhode Island School of Design trained illustrator and educator… I’ve been a high school art teacher for over 12 years. I’m passionate about helping kids see their creative dreams come true. Pixicade creates an outlet for kid’s creativity and is a great extension of all the things we love to do.

Martin: Throughout Alysha’s teaching career, she observed that kids were having difficulty thinking creatively. For years, we talked about it because we believe that creativity is one of the most important skills you can have. We realised Pixicade could be an answer to this problem, utilizing technology to bring out a child’s creativity like never before possible!

Great answer. And now we’re on the subject, tell us about Pixicade… What’s the big idea?
Martin: The idea behind Pixicade is very simple. You draw on paper and take a picture of the drawing in the Pixicade App… Then, in 30 seconds or less, your drawing becomes a video game you can play. You can then share that video game with friends and family.

Martin Horstman, Alysha Horstman, Pixicade
The drawing I make comes to life in 30 seconds? That’s mind boggling to me…

Martin: Right! We brought the game creation process down to its simplest form… Even a young child can understand it… And it’s super fun and flexible. There are different game templates with slightly different variations; they’re mostly color coded…

Colour coded for what purpose?
Martin: To make it more intuitive. Draw in red to indicate the hazards: things you need to avoid. Green is for your character… your avatar… The thing you control. The solid ground, walls and floors are black. Blue is for the goals – whatever you need to collect to win. Then there’s purple, which is for the interactive physical objects.

Stuff I can pick up or use?
Alysha: Exactly; anything that makes things more dynamic. So you might make – say – a purple sled for your avatar to ride over a red lava pit! By taking out all the complexities of coding, and putting the focus on drawing, we make creating video games accessible to almost everyone.

Martin Horstman, Alysha Horstman, Pixicade
I can’t wait to try this! People must get a tremendous kick out of having that kind of – well, power, I wanted to say. Is that the right word?

Alysha: I think it is; there’s certainly an empowerment kids feel when they achieve something they never thought possible. It’s an amazingly positive use of technology to help a child express their creativity. Pixicade is all about enabling children to explore their creativity and imagination. That said, about 20% of users are adults! Parents do this with their kids, of course, but they also play independently… Pixicade is a great example of a product driving the kidult trend.

I’m not surprised; it looks amazing. Let me ask you this… In your own words, what makes it special?
Martin: There are so many things that make it special, it’s hard to narrow down. When it comes down to it, there’s nothing else like it in the world. Pixicade is the only system that enables anyone to create a video game, in seconds, where the end result is an extension of their original artwork. There’s this magical moment when people see their drawings come to life for the first time. When a child realizes they can create their own video game, it’s amazing. Plus we were able to create Pixicade in a way that’s very reasonably priced for families. Most STEM/STEAM products with innovative tech are priced much higher. Being affordable is important to both Alysha and I.

Martin Horstman, Alysha Horstman, Pixicade
We spent almost two years working directly with schools, teachers, and students to really understand the educational benefits of the technology… Pixicade promotes critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. We used everything we learned to create the physical kit we sell now. One of the things that makes Pixicade so special is that kids can fix mistakes they make using our powerups and edit tools during a game without having to toss out a game.

They don’t get discouraged…
Alysha: Right – kids don’t give up if their game doesn’t work first time because they’re having so much fun creating and playing. They learn from prior mistakes to create a better game! This is called “failing forward” – the ability to learn from failing and use it as a stepping stone for future success… And it’s an amazing skill to develop.

Martin: I spent years developing the image processing algorithms to make it an easy, one-click process to create a game. Alysha’s unique skills as a teacher let us create a product that everyone can have a blast playing but also learn from… Having fun, without knowing they’re learning.

Alysha: I like to say it’s like we’re hiding the broccoli in the French fries!

But two years on the educational benefits is the tip of the iceberg, isn’t it? I understand Pixicade was ten years in development… What skills from computer engineering have come in useful?
Martin: From a computer side, all of my skills in programming are used here. There are many different programming languages involved and dozens of different technologies. And yes… I started developing the tech in 2010! We spent over three years developing the image-processing algorithm alone, which is what lets you create games with just one click of a button – no complicated sliders or configurations needed.

Martin Horstman, Alysha Horstman, Pixicade
And the same question for you, Alysha, in regard to teaching art…

Alysha: While Martin was working on the tech, I was noticing a crisis in creativity in the classroom. As kids have more technology at their fingertips, they’re inundated with other people’s ideas. That makes it harder for them to create their own… In the classroom, I observed a common interest and motivator for kids has always been gaming. With Martin’s technology, we realized we had an opportunity to offer a solution to this very real problem. Giving the kids a tool to create their own video games unlocks the creative process in a way never possible before.

Great. Conversely, then, did having preconceptions from those industries limit you in anyway?
Martin: I don’t think so. I have a specific approach to all my projects… List down everything you want, assume anything is possible. Then we prioritise, based on a variety of factors, to determine what we do or don’t do. Many times, the things that seem impossible aren’t – but trivial things that seem easy are actually quite difficult.

Alysha: I agree. I think all my teaching philosophies and methods had a very clear carry over from the classroom to developing the books and product. This product and teaching are both about opening doors for kids; giving them ways to create and explore their interests in a fun, supportive way.

Martin Horstman, Alysha Horstman, Pixicade
I can’t even imagine putting something like this together. For those that are interested, what are the technical requirements?

Alysha: Part of the beauty of Pixicade is that it’s really simple. You only need two things. First, a mobile device; iOS or Android phones or tablets. Second, you need curiosity and or your imagination!

Martin: We’ve removed the need for any code or complicated configurations, so all you need to do is focus on your drawing and design. You can then experiment in the app with the powerups which allow for creative problem solving. Whether you’re an artist like Alysha, or can only draw stick figures like me, anyone can play Pixicade and have a great time.

Listen, I aspire to draw stick figures… I’m still stuck doing heads with legs! In terms of getting Pixicade to market, how has that happened? How did the idea move from the back of your mind to the front of the shelf?
Martin: Wow, this is quite a story. In 2016, we started beta testing a different app at New York Maker Fair to understand user response to a play pattern. We spent the next two years working with teachers. We leveraged all the learning and began creating a consumer product in 2018, working towards our ultimate launch of Pixicade in 2021.

Martin Horstman, Alysha Horstman, Pixicade
How so?

Alysha: Along the way we partnered with Robert Yusim of Product Counsel to help with our marketing efforts, to navigate us and really grow our vision. We launched a really successful direct to consumer campaign for Pixicade in January 2021, and now have some amazing partners, bringing all of our dreams for Pixicade to fruition! Now Pixicade is in many leading retailers in the US… It’s a dream come true!

Have you plans to launch outside the US?
Martin: For sure! We’re already working with a number of international distributors… So you’ll see Pixicade in the UK, Benelux, GAS, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Scandinavia, this holiday season and several other countries in the coming year! We’ll be growing our international presence as we head into 2022 and beyond.

Martin Horstman, Alysha Horstman, Pixicade
Great. Are you also looking to invent other products? Or is it one and done?

Alysha: We have so many ideas – literally dozens! We’re working to continue expanding the Pixicade brand as well as some new initiatives. For Pixicade alone, we have a pipeline of two new-product launches a year going out several years into the future… And we haven’t even scratched the surface of everything our team has planned! You can expect to see a lot more from Pixicade and BitOGenius in the near future.

Brilliant! Well listen: this has been a tremendous pleasure – I can’t wait to get my hands on a Pixicade; it looks terrific. Thank you for your time – I know how busy you are! If our readers want to find out more, how can they reach you?
Martin: Feel free to contact me any time at [email protected].

Terrific. Final question then: what are the most interesting things in your offices, or on your desks?
Martin: Ok, so earlier this year I went to the ASTRA convention in Minneapolis. I came home from the convention to little googly eyes all over the office! We work hard, but also have a lot of fun here. At lunchtime, we select the Pixicade ‘game of the day’ and our team has a competition for the top score. If you see ‘skizard29’, that’s me! Can you beat my score?

I’ll give it a damn good go!
Alysha: We have a shelf full of awards which we’re really proud of. We also have doodles from our two girls – aged seven and eight years – on our desks… They’re a constant source of inspiration!

Martin Horstman, Alysha Horstman, Pixicade

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