Corrections or additions?

These articles by Barbara Fox were prepared for the January 14,

2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

American Alpha: Machines for Fun

In his youth Ken Haag hung out at the 1980s mecca for Princeton

teenagers, the tiny, cramped video game space at Mykonos’ carry-out

pizza store on Nassau Street. "I lived there," says Haag, a former

game champion. Haag readily admits he has lost his touch and plays

very little, "just enough to know what I am selling."

Now he is general manager of American Alpha, a 16-year-old video

amusement game company with 17 employees that last fall went from

17,500 to 25,000 of warehouse space on Stouts Lane.

American Alpha made its name with its Foto Morphosis machine, which

uses facial mapping technology to "morph" the faces of two people into

one so that, theoretically, they know what their child might look like

(U.S. 1, June 17, 1995). It has developed several variations on the

morphing theme, and it also provides other products for the amusement

industry, including redemption games, kiddie rides, bill acceptors,

and printed circuit boards for game boards.

The new space will allow Haag to move into the international market.

On this continent he rents the morphing machines, but overseas

customers will be able to purchase the machines outright. He is

working with major distributors from Australia, Moscow, and Mexico.

Haag grew up in Princeton, where his father and mother worked at

Educational Testing Service and in the Unitarian ministry,

respectively. He majored in religion and psychology at the University

of Rochester, worked at several retail jobs, then worked full-time in

the trademark licensing and technology transfer department at

Princeton University.

In 1996 Haag cast his lot with a small business that manufactures and

sells entertainment games. "I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Sming

Huang, realized his vision and opportunity, and decided to take a shot

at working for a small company rather than a big university. It seemed

exciting, that I could have an impact both positive and negative in

the daily business of a company," says Haag. "I pretty much knew what

my career would be at the university, and I was young enough and

excited enough to take a risk."

If you are a FotoMorph customer, you can have your face melded with

the human or animal of your dreams. Just pay $5, step into the booth,

and your picture is snapped, mapped, and then superimposed over

another’s in 3-D. While the result is not scientifically based, it’s

bound to be an interesting souvenir, and it’s easy to do. The computer

does the morph by taking 49 points on your face around the eyes, nose,

eyebrows, and mouth, and then blending them together.

The story behind Foto Morphosis: Matsushita originally developed the

software and hardware, and Kyugo crammed it all into a booth and made

it look snazzy for public consumption. Huang, a native of Taiwan,

brought the booths to the United States, and developed the technology

so it could recognize facial structures of different ethnicities.

The latest versions let the customer see up to 12 different morphs and

select two to four of the morphs to take home as a photograph. In

addition to morphing to see what a child would look like, the machines

now offer instant makeovers (with new hairdos and costumes).

Among the morph choices: farm animals, wild animals, fish, and

presidents (what would you look like as Abe Lincoln?). Down the road,

Haag is planning to use the licensing skills he acquired at Princeton

University to partner with other firms for morphs of famous people and

scenes from movies.

Though the core business is machine rental at amusement locations,

Haag is doing more and more corporate-events work. "We can now

accomplish the customization required to satisfy high end corporate

accounts," he says.

To entice potential customers to their trade show booth, Staples

requisitioned a travel fantasy theme. Customers could get their photos

taken in front of the Roman Coliseum or a location of their choice.

For Tropicana he sent the machines on a product launch tour targeting

the "tween" (preteen/young teen) market. "They take over the center

court of a mall, and this is part of the attraction," he says. The

tweens did their morphs, mostly with animals and see their photos on

the Tropicana website, thus driving traffic through the website.

For Snapple he commissioned a "full wrap" covering for bottles.

Players could choose to morph themselves with objects, place

themselves at an exotic location and the result incorporated special

Snapple graphics. "The result was that each bottle truly becomes the

person playing our machine."

American Alpha operates its equipment on location, at such places as

Luxor and Excalibur Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Ripley’s Museums,

Jillian’s restaurants, and Dave & Busters. Haag describes Dave and

Busters as "an adult ChuckECheese, with tons of pool tables, a million

dollar midway, and redemption games," and the nearest ones are in

Philadelphia or Nyack, New York.

Redemption games dispense tickets according to the players’ skill or

luck. Complete with cabinet, they cost $3,600, and many clients buy a

new game board every six months, paying $1,500 for the hardware and

one game and from $400 to $500 for a graphics and circuit board

package for a new game. Titles include Jackpot Crossing and Desert


"We have 70 percent market share in our tight niche of video

redemption game boards," says Haag. In contrast to the shoot-em-up

video games, the redemption games allow players to accumulate a score

and win prizes.

The game boards and redemption games are imported from Japan and

Taiwan, but the photo machines are made here. One photo machine can

gross as much as $10,000 a month, but Haag declines to say what they

cost to rent or buy. "We like the mystique of ‘There’s no price,’"

says Haag.

American Alpha Inc., 45 Stouts Lane, Monmouth Junction

08852. Sming Huang, president. 732-438-0420; fax, 732-438-0424. Home


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