Tech for good start-up Onigo is tackling social isolation with outdoor games

Amelia Heathman

There’s nothing better than getting out into your local park and having a run around with your friends. Fresh air is free, we were always told by our parents, but in fact, four out of 10 people in England aren’t doing enough exercise, according to Sport England.

When coupled with statistics that people are 30 per cent more likely to develop depression if they are physically inactive, there’s a public health reason to ensure that people are encouraged to get out and about.

This is the problem Alex Stanley has set out to solve with Onigo. Dubbed London’s first outdoor escape rooms, Onigo brings people together in their local park, armed with a web app, to complete tasks as part of an immersive adventure game.

The idea for Onigo came to Stanley after he joined Zinc, a new incubator programme that brings future start-up founders together to build tech companies aimed at solving some of the world’s toughest social issues.

Stanley had worked in the sports and fitness industry for the past decade, whilst also volunteering as a mental health campaigner and ambassador for the charity CALM. But, it was a chance meeting in the pub that led him to Zinc and eventually Onigo.

“I was having a conversation with a friend of a friend, telling him about how much I’d enjoyed running the London Marathon for CALM and a small campaign on social media, much more than my day job,” Stanley tells the Standard. “He asked me if I’d heard of Zinc and there’s where it all started.”

Onigo's CEO and co-founder Alex Stanley (Onigo)

Each Zinc cohort focuses on combatting a different problem, with the programme Stanley aimed to tackle the global problem of women’s emotional and mental health. Given his background in fitness, he decided to create something that would use physical activity to combat social isolation.

“We tried to create something that fits between the fun and games world, the social meet up world, and the exercise world,” says Stanley. “We designed Onigo around that.”

Onigo took inspiration from two social phenomena: Pokémon Go, the augmented reality game that tasked people with discovering Pokémon in public places on their smartphones, and escape rooms.

At the moment, the game is a web app with a storyline, either a prison breakout story or a murder mystery game, using geolocation. Teams pay £10 each to take part and navigate their way around either Hyde Park or Battersea Park to tick off the tasks in the game, all in an hour time limit.

“You go around the park, get active and solve tasks to unlock things, just like in a computer game. Except it's digital,” explains Stanley.

He says the first iteration of Onigo’s games was “horrible and rough and the ugliest piece of tech”. But it allowed the team to watch how people play and learn from players about what they want to do, to eventually improve the product.

Stanley says it helps that Onigo isn’t using super fancy technology yet. “One of the great things about being a basic web app is we’ve been able to iterate quickly and learn as we go, which is really important.”

Onigo uses tech as a tool to get people socialising and exercising, without them realising (Onigo)

Onigo has just hired its first chief technology officer, a web developer named Vicky, who was previously lead developer on a mental health app. Now the team now has this tech experience, will they start adding things like AR a la Pokémon Go?

“We found that the reason people enjoyed [playing the games] wasn’t to do with anything big or fancy in tech, but what the tech enable: an outdoor experience, talking with their friends, problem-solving in an outdoor environment,” says Stanley.

“That doesn’t mean we won’t look at AR, but we don’t want people to just be on their phones during the experience. It’s about building social connections and get people to be moving and active.”

At the moment, each game is a one-off scenario, but Stanley hopes to improve on this to create serialised games that could be playing week in, week out, with teams and leaderboards.

Already, he says, the feedback has been great for people who have taken part.

“I was with someone this morning and they said it was so nice to catch up with friends with no alcohol involved, that was really refreshing for them,” he says. “We have much bigger plans to make this scalable.”