Blast Off

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By: Tim McKeough | September 14, 2009

San Francisco’s Astro Studios takes aim

at the next generation of video-game gear.


Click here to see a slideshow of photos of the designers work and more from their San San Fransisco offices.


“We want to be the Nike or Burton of video gaming,” explains Brett Lovelady, founder of Astro Studios, a San Francisco–based industrial design firm that focuses on personal entertainment equipment. He’s talking about the studio’s new venture, Astro Gaming, a spin-off company that recently began making pro-grade gaming gear. “There was an opportunity to give gaming pros better-performing product, much like you would do with any professional sport,” he says. “You know, let’s give the best athletes the best products to perform with.” Just as Nike Lab develops specialty shoes for Olympians, Astro Gaming wants to make gear for the next kings of Kong.

Building a company with the cachet of Nike or Burton is no easy feat, but Astro has already shown that it has the design chops to pull it off. The spin-off company’s very first product, the A40 Audio System, which includes a headset with a detachable boom mic and a mixing amp to control player conversations and the game’s soundtrack, has become the official equipment of Major League Gaming (MLG), the gaming world’s equivalent of Major League Baseball or the NFL. (I.D. awarded the A40 an honorable mention in this year’s Annual Design Review.) Astro designed the system to mix the look of solid, professional-grade audio gear with a “spark of sci-fi,” says Lovelady, by using a careful mix of glossy and matte plastics—perfect for guys who think of themselves as Imperial stormtroopers. With a new line of specialty bags for hauling gaming consoles and Guitar Hero controllers, Astro is now expanding the product range.

“Astro brings a really interesting discipline to product development that doesn’t otherwise exist in the video-gaming space,” says Michael Sepso, co-founder and chairman of MLG, who was amazed to see how much attention the studio lavished on the A40. “They spent at least a year on tour with us, working directly with a couple of our pro teams, prototyping, developing, and really fine-tuning that product,” he adds. As a result, he says, the headsets have been “universally accepted by the top competitive gamers,” and the mixing amps are even built into MLG’s competitive gaming stations.

Since setting up shop in 1994, Lovelady and his team of 25 employees have had a significant hand in shaping the look and feel of gaming equipment. They’ve designed PCs for Alienware, the hot-rod gaming company that Dell acquired in 2006; shaped Microsoft’s Xbox 360; and designed the performance-driven Blackbird and Firebird PCs for HP. At a moment when video games are expanding across different delivery channels and maturing into a full-fledged entertainment medium, Astro has placed itself at the center of the action, pulling together disparate threads to shape the next generation of gaming technology. Its latest projects include a glossy, faceted console and controller for OnLive, a service that will stream games over the web; a webcam for Yoostar (see review, page 84); and a playful, family-oriented brand identity for Gazillion Entertainment, a massively multiplayer online gaming community that has partnered with Marvel and Lego.

Astro found its niche by bringing an unusual perspective to product design, says Lovelady, who was previously a vice president at both frog design and Lunar Design. “We try to wrap in a certain amount of whimsy, or irreverence, or humor,” he says. “That takes the edge off the seriousness of a lot of product design. We’ve always had the ability to stretch a little more and be a little crazier.”

As Lovelady points out, Astro has rarely taken on work related to the health and medical fields—bread-and-butter jobs for many design studios. “Part of it comes back to the types of designers we hire,” he says. “We hire a lot of people with action-sports backgrounds—surf, skate, snow, and motor sports. People who have a real good sense of the street, music, and youth markets.” The firm further encourages these traits with “extracurricular activities” beyond its raw, loftlike South of Market office space. Last year, Astro rented a cabin near Lake Tahoe for employees to use as a base for snowboarding in order to keep the staff connected to the culture their products target.

“We’re pretty intuitive people, and we’re hands-on,” says Lovelady. Rather than torturing themselves for too long with computers and focus groups, Astro’s designers often prefer to jump right in, build models, and play with them in-house. “When we have a big idea, we want to bring it live,” he says.

The latest big idea from Astro is the Zune HD, which hits shelves this month. While Microsoft had already built all the functionality—HD radio, HD video output, wireless web browser, video syncing with Xbox Live—it was up to Astro to wrap it in a shell that could compete head-to-head with the iPod Touch. Like many competitors, the Zune HD clearly uses the iPod’s minimalist, touch-screen style as a departure point but adds sharper edges and a folded back panel that cradles nicely in the palm of the hand. Lovelady says the objective was to make the player appear rugged yet rich, much like a high-end watch. It attempts to do so with a slim size, brushed metallic accents, and tiny precision screws countersunk into the back. “Its design language is inspired by precious gems,” says Steve Kaneko, experience director at Microsoft, noting that its faceted form isn’t “overly radiused or worked.” Indeed, Zune HD loses the blobby buttons of the original but retains the brand’s personalization program—the new version, like the old, will be available in a variety of colors, with optional laser-engraved art. “We’re all kind of crossing our fingers that maybe it can scrape off a little bit of Apple’s market share,” says Lovelady, pausing as he considers the challenge of going up against a design icon. “But we’re not delusional.”

However, with Astro Gaming, the studio appears well positioned to turn out a few icons of its own. In fact, MLG’s Sepso could think of only one way to describe the importance of Astro Gaming’s A40 headset to the league: “It’s like the Wilson football for the NFL.” By immersing itself in youth culture and standing ready to jump on new technology, Astro Studios will be shaping the gaming experience for years to come. *

Tim McKeough is a writer in New York, and a regular contributor to The New York Times, Fast Company, and Metropolis.

Photography by JEFFERY CROSS