Grey Area, a small startup operating in stealth mode, is gearing up to change the cityscape for everybody. I get back to how they are going to do this later in the post, but the story of how this startup came to be is equally interesting.

I first met the guys back in OpenCoffee Helsinki what must be more than a year ago. I remember Mikko Hämäläinen telling me how they were exploring possibilities to set up a company with two of his friends, Andreas Karlsson and Teemu Tuulari, from Ericsson. All three had started at Ericsson in 2003-2004 and met when they were put in the small team with the task of developing an Ericsson network node.

After a little while the network node got developed far enough that it only needed maintenance. The three guys led a small independent team in Finland and built strong ties. Finally the team were assigned to go to India to make sure the node’s further maintenance would be smoothly transitioned to an outsourced Indian team. After coming back to Finland going truly independent as a startup instead of hopping to a big project started to feel tempting. This is when all those lunch break conversations of building a service of some kind to the urban city environment started to seem like a real alternative instead of the far away dream that it had been before. And when the iPhone came out, it really got them imagining what could be done.

After deliberation the guys decided to resign. They did and the next thing I saw was Mikko posting “Resigned from Ericsson and sold my car today. Here we go…” in Jaiku.

They told me that big part of the push to get them to establish the company was the people they met at OpenCoffee meetings and at ArcticEvening who had the same mindset and who helped them to find the right contacts and the spirit to keep the course and keep hustling even when things did not go as planned. I once wrote that such events are “essential for the community to find each other and get to know each other on a more concrete level, so that it will eventually result in more partnerships, more co-operation, more startups, and eventually more success stories.” Grey Area makes me even stronger proponent of the small events for the grass roots scene and I hope many more events of all kinds will pop-up and possible future entrepreneurs can make those invaluable connections.

A lot is in the atmosphere. At MobileDevCamp.fi (also one of those grass roots events), which Grey Area helped to organize, the guys met Teemu Kurppa and Kimmo Vihola. Now they share a team in Helsinki’s up-and-coming Kallio district. Until that, Nolla, a cafe/bar in Helsinki’s Kamppi area, was their office, just as its mine and numerous other entrepreneurs building their dream.

To get on their feet the team did a few client projects before getting further financing from AVEK and Nordic Game Program.

The idea was built up from small discussions. Before the iPhone era when the location data was behind closed operator walls the team was looking at building a web 2.0 service, but when the iPhone came out the talk turned to games.

After talking to the guys and as soon as I heard what they were doing I could not but think of a book by Cory Doctorow. Grey Area was doing mobile alternate reality gaming and it just sounded like the future.

Now they are building a location aware game world on top of our own physical reality and my mobile acts as a window to this world. In Grey Area’s game, our cities and neighborhoods become the playing fields. Their aim is to develop a new kind of mobile gaming genre from the ground up. Grey Area is not trying to shrink existing PC/console games to fit the mobile. Instead they build a platform and a persistent game world that one can access using different devices wherever she is.

The game world gives the gamer magical powers and augments the reality around her. Once mundane places get a new meaning as you explore them in this magical world.

I love the fact that they are thinking about the bigger context beyond individual discrete platforms and how one could combine all of the many applications and services we use today to result in a continuous, yet not seamless, but still immersive experience. It should not be smooth and seamless, but an intelligent experience in a way that does not under estimate the user’s own ability to think and resolve problematic situations.

The business model will be built around virtual goods and the game itself will be affordable or even free to maximize the biggest possible reach. Based on what I’ve seen, reach will not be a a problem if the game is anywhere near what I think it will be.

Grey Area is one to watch in the Finnish startup scene and they have a story to back it up.

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