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Playing games pays for Swiss start-up

Snowie is a so-called silicon backgammon player (SnowieGroup) Snowiegroup

Olivier Egger and Johannes Levermann have earned quite a few million francs in the past five years with backgammon - not as hustlers playing the Monaco-Las Vegas circuits pitting their skills against the idle rich.

This content was published on January 20, 2003 - 11:41

Rather, they have been selling a neural networking-based software package they created that helps players improve their skills.

SnowieGroup is a two-man company based in Morges that Egger formed with German-born Levermann after they met at a backgammon tournament five years ago to sell their creation, called Snowie.

"Snowie has changed backgammon tournaments irrevocably," says Chris Bray, the British columnist and author of several books about backgammon. "Knowledge of the game has increased by leaps and bounds, largely due to the growing strength of neural net backgammon programs such as Snowie."

Bray adds that Snowie is "silicon backgammon player" that can beat most "carbon based" players.

Serious business

For most of us, backgammon is a game for rainy Sunday afternoons or summer holiday evenings, but for about four thousand backgammon tournament players, online gamers, and semi-professionals who play the US and European tournament circuits, it is their passion.

That is why they are willing to fork out hundreds of francs for a game that will help them improve their performance.

More than 3000 copies of Snowie have been sold at a price of around SFr 550 per download. It also licenses the engine to backgammon web sites.

This year the plan is to expand. More employees will be hired to support and sell a poker game based on neural network technology. "The poker playing market is much bigger," says Egger.

He adds that he does not need, or want to, raise venture capital, despite having been offered it, because he wants to retain control of his company and grow organically.

Lean operation

The SnowieGroup runs a lean operation. Sales are via the web and any programming that does not have to do with artificial intelligence is outsourced, according to Egger.

A German programming team designed the User Interface, while Italian freelancers developed the Snowie web site.

Its office contains about two dozen computers with about 30 GHz of processing power in total, working in a network to "train current artificial intelligence projects".

Unlike, traditional computer programs that run a set of instructions over and over again, neural network based software programmes "learn" simple functions from interaction with other neural network programmes or from interaction with a user in an iterative process.

It was while researching image processing software techniques at the Signal Processing Laboratory at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne that he was inspired to apply neural networking to backgammon.

The same LST is gaining an international reputation for its image processing work defining new worldwide compression standards, such as MPEG4.

In addition, a number of start-up companies have emerged from the LST lab including, Fastcom, Alpvision, and VisioWave. The laboratory is run by Prof. Murat Kunt and Prof. Touradj Ebrahimi.

swissinfo, Valerie Thompson

In brief

SnowieGroup is a neural networking-based software package that helps players improve their backgammon skills.
The two-man company which is based in Morges was formed by Olivier Egger and Johannes Levermann after they met at a backgammon tournament five years ago.
More than 3000 copies of Snowie have been sold at a price of around SFr550 per download.

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