As a young graduate Sam Chapman landed a dream job - and got to spend hours playing computer driving games. But after redundancy ended his time creating games for Atari, PlayStation and Xbox, he steered his love of technology to a far worthier cause - increasing road safety.
The Floow, the 30-strong company he co-founded on Joiner Street, Sheffield, specialises in telematics techniques that enable insurers, car manufacturers and fleet operators to monitor how we drive and reward better driving. The Floow employs leading experts in computer science, data mining and driver psychology and its global clients include Direct Line and AIG.
Q. Your first job after gaining computer science degrees at Sheffield University was working for a games programmer in Sheffield. It must have been a dream job at that age.
A. After university I did not want what I saw as a traditional IT job. My second degree was in Forensics and Computer Graphics (working with 3D sudden death reconstructions for home office pathologists) and as my background was already in graphics, computer games were a clear attraction to me.
I joined Sheffield-based Infogrames and found myself surrounded by prototype games consoles, including early Playstation 2s (as big as an oven and just as hot!) I worked long hours and lived in a world of computer games. It was a pretty cool first job.
Q. What games did you create?
A. I worked in a team on a large number of games - from sports games Slam Tennis and Premier Manager to driving games Micro Machines and Driv3r and big Hollywood brands like Superman.
Q. Then came your life-changing moment; redundancy in 2003. How did you feel?
A. My employer decided to close its European studios and focus its efforts on Hollywood. I was not sure what my next step was going to be, but I was young and I had a healthy redundancy sum, so I knew I could afford to choose my next move carefully.
Q. How did you find a new direction?
A. I met one of my university professors (Yorick Wilkes, now retired) randomly in a pub. We had a long discussion about my future and I finally agreed to fill a three-month University of Sheffield post as a stopgap. I ended up staying for five years, getting a PhD along the way and working with leading researchers across Europe! One of them, Prof. Fabio Ciravegna, put forward the idea of commercialising some research I was mid-way through patenting. No one else involved wanted to leave their academic roles - I was the only one who decided to step into the unknown. I formed my first business, Knowledge Now Ltd, and worked on state-of-the-art information technology to interpret complex data for a range of industries.
Q. How did that business develop into The Floow?
I travelled the world to meet various experts. One of them was Aldo Monteforte, a serial entrepreneur. He suggested a vision of the future for telematics that compelled me to change direction and we decided to form The Floow.
Q. Why does The Floow have an extra o?
A. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a psychologist, used the word ‘flow’ to describe the state of energised focus people feel when they are fully immersed in something - which we felt ourselves to be. Unfortunately “flow” was not a possible name for us, so following Google’s design ideas, we added an extra ‘o’.
Q. What you’re doing now is more worthwhile than producing games...
A. Yes, I enjoyed developing games immensely but my efforts never helped advance the world. I strongly feel that telematics can alter the safety of travel. Each year 1.24 million people around the world are killed in road accidents. Telematics can put in place safer systems that will make the world a better place.
Q. Do you have a telematics black box in your car?
A. Yes of course. It was a no-brainer for me. My journeys are evaluated by black boxes and by phone apps. As a result my insurance is lower and my car is safer from theft. If a disastrous crash occurs, my car’s telematics data will ensure a fairer handling of any claim.
Q. Are you passionate about road safety?
A. Yes, road safety is a huge passion and a core part of our work. Road fatalities are the biggest cause of death in people aged 15-29. Road accidents have a huge impact on the GDP of every country worldwide. Efficient travel is vital for the economy and for people’s freedom, but we need to make it safer.
Q. Are you passionate about technology?
A. Yes but not all technology (3D printed guns are less helpful to society!) It is more important to find ways of using and building technology to solve real world problems and improve people’s lives. And actually I carry little of it around with me. I still prefer real books to electronic ones and I’m back down to having only one phone. I did have 6 at one point!
Q. Do you think computer games are bad for us? You have children aged four and six - do you regulate how much time they spend on games?
A. I don’t think games themselves are ever bad for us. They can however reflect deeper problems in certain people. I personally think games can be hugely educational; interactive and social elements make them far better than television. My children mostly play maths and language games, so I don’t feel I need to regulate the time they spend on them.
Q. What do you do at work, day to day?
A. Our development team recently built a new world first - a car insurance application for Google Glass, which aims to make driving safer. Whether wearing a computer on the side of your head will catch on or not, only time will tell, though! And today I have been investigating car crime data to find out if some places are safer to drive in than others.
Q. What is the most important thing technology has given us in the last 10 years - and where will it take us in the next decade? Will it be a better world, or a worse one?
A. It’s given us an ever-growing availability of global information, which makes it possible for more people to reach their full potential, regardless of background and circumstances. I see this data revolution speeding up as more and more ways of sensing the world around us and becoming connected develop. I think it will bring greater freedoms for everyone.