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Tech comes into its own at Toy Fair 2014

Friday, February 28th, 2014

[The following is an article I wrote for the Feb. 27, 2014 issue of KidScreen.]

WikiBear by Commonwealth Toy was the talk of Toy Fair.

I’m not a betting guy. But if you asked me to wager that this year’s crop of tech toys would be compelling, playful and desirable, I probably would have bet against you.

Historically, tech and play have not co-existed so well together in the toy world. In the past, numerous tech toy misses resulted in large financial losses as the emphasis was often placed incorrectly on technology at the expense of play. This includes a large cohort of apps created by toy companies over the last two years. But this year was different. At this month’s New York Toy Fair, apps had greater play appeal, any accompanying physical element was better integrated into the play experience, the tech was not forced and focus was appropriately placed on fun.

Common elements of the most successful tech toys often included the use of a digital camera, numerous sensors and in some cases even effective use of augmented reality. Gone are the days of the “watch me” toy, which are animatronic, robotic toys that are just no fun to watch. Also gone are products that relied on confusing second screens. Tech play for tech’s sake has been replaced with the motto “fun first, tech second.”

With that in mind, the following three newcomers have the potential to be serious trailblazers in the year ahead:

WikiBear by Commonwealth Toy (Video link)

This was the talk of the show. One simple way to describe WikiBear is by the nickname it earned at the show, Siri Bear. Imagine a child talking to WikiBear, asking it endless questions. “How far away is the moon?” “Who is the current president of the US?” “Where is the nearest library?” Ask WikiBear a question, any question, and it will provide an answer by scouring the web for a response. Narration from the bear has a friendly conversational tone, not a cold and clinical response. WikiBear relies on speech recognition technologies (a major challenge with children’s voices) and requires a live wireless web connection. It also uses a lot of back-end language and conversation smarts. WikiBear will be available in the fall and a suggested retail price has yet to be confirmed. However, Commonwealth believes it will be somewhere between $59.95 and $69.95. At this price, adults could even use WikiBear as an inexpensive therapist.

Ozobot following line patterns

Ozobot by Evollve (Video link)

Ozobot is a small roving robot, about the size of a lime. It has a built-in optical reader on its base that not only follows a drawn line path on paper, or on a tablet, but it can also interpret different colored patterns. One set of colored dots can make Ozobot spin, another make it go faster, or slower, or flash its lights. In a sense, there is a tiny bit of programming fun the user can create by drawing each path with different colored dots. Six free single player and multiplayer game apps will be available at launch, which will be in August for a cost of $59.95.

Spy Gear Video Glasses by Spin Master

Spy Gear Video Glasses (Video link)

Can’t see past the $1,500 Google Glass price tag? Spin Master has released its own version called Spy Gear Video Glasses for just under $30. The device will let kids secretly capture up to 20 minutes of video or up to 2,000 photos. These specs look a lot less geeky than Google Glass, and they are already available in stores.

Other noteworthy tech toys that were the topic of conversation at the show were a number of game-based learning apps by a Silicon Valley startup called Tangible Play. So too were block-like, robotic construction kits called MOSS by Molecular Robotics, whose creations can be controlled through an app. Fun, playful and inexpensive digital dice by eDiceToys caught my eye, as did a compelling fashion designer creativity kit and app called My Virtual Fashion Show by Crayola.

Now that the toy industry is starting to get the upper hand on digital play, you won’t have to wait until next year’s Toy Fair to see advances with tech toys or apps. Unlike Toy Fair in years past, advances with digital play will start to appear more frequently. I predict you will start to see new, innovative, tech toy products and apps announced again as early as next month.

[Scott Traylor is the founder and CEO of Boston-based 360KID, a digital development company specializing in creating interactive products for children as a service.]

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Cooney Study Leaves New Questions for Educational Media Creators

Monday, January 27th, 2014

[The following is an article I wrote for the Jan. 24, 2014 issue of KidScreen.]

Vicky Rideout during her survey presentation at the Cooney Center Breakthrough Learning Forum.

Media research reports are great for offering insights about an industry. They help media creators take stock in where they are today with their media creation efforts on different platforms, and they also provide ideas on how we can best serve an intended audience. At the same time, what is gained from a new study almost always leads to many more new questions that can’t immediately be answered.

That’s certainly the case with the latest Joan Ganz Cooney Center report entitled Learning at Home: Families’ Educational Media Use in America. According to Vicky Rideout, children’s media researcher and the report’s main author, this is the first time “we have tried to quantify, on a national basis, what portion of kids screen time is devoted to educational content.”

The report digs deep into parents’ thoughts on their child’s use of educational media across a number of different platforms. One big finding that will not be a big surprise to broadcasters: Television is still king when it comes to delivering educational content, even though access to alternative platforms like mobile, computers and videogames has increased greatly in recent years. Television is the preferred platform by a long shot for educational media. Granted, the television industry has also had decades more time, almost 50 years’ worth, of creating and delivering educational content to young children than its younger media platform relatives. Still, with the explosive growth of mobile, this data point begs the question if parents are aware of the educational opportunities available to them on other platforms?

Among the many insights offered, children engage with educational media less as they age. Two-to four-year-olds consume 1:16 (one hour and sixteen minutes) of educational media daily, dropping to 0:50 for five-to seven-year-olds, and further still to 0:42 for eight-to 10-year-olds. Even at this lower end for eight-to 10-year-olds, you could consider their educational media use as an added class of learning material each day. However, as a child ages they also spend more overall time consuming media, educational or not, to the point where eight to 10-year-old media usage almost doubles compared to that of two-to four-year-olds. Surprisingly, while this older group consumes less educational media content daily, their parents report seeing their child demonstration of “a particular action as a result of something they saw or did with educational media” more so than the younger age groups. This could very well be a cumulative effect of educational media use consumed over many years, but still, it’s striking data point in the research. One could strongly argue, this “particular action” is evidence of mastery of the educational content that is consumed.

Other noteworthy findings:

  • Parents see a greater perceived learning impact in the areas of cognitive skills, reading, and math from educational media use but less impact with learning science or anything related to the arts.
  • The greater a parent’s education, the less educational media is consumed.
  • The greater the family’s income, the less educational media consumed.
  • Hispanic/Latino households reports less “actions taken” from educational media use than Black or White families.

These are just a few of the many findings called out in this report. There’s also data on parent and child sharing in the educational media experience together (often referred to as “joint media engagement”) as well as findings on traditional book reading and eBook use.

With just these few items I’ve called out above, the report forces us to consider many big, unanswered questions:

  • As children grow, why do they engage less with educational media, yet consume more media at the same time? Is there a need to create more engaging educational content for this age group than what is currently being offered?
  • What is it that we’re doing wrong, or not doing at all, to better engage Hispanic/Latino families with educational media?
  • Are parents less aware of the educational offerings available through mobile, computers and video games? If so, should we get behind a national awareness campaign to make ratings and reviews websites like Common Sense Media and Children’s Technology Review better known to parents?

Perhaps the biggest question raised in this report is whether educational media use, which appears to have great benefit at an early age, leads to greater media consumption that is of less benefit to children as they age?

Michael Levine, the executive director of the Cooney Center shares this report is the beginning of a larger conversation around educational media use. “There’s a lot of interest in having children view educational media, but less fulfillment of the wish as illustrated by this report, particularly for low income and Hispanic and Latino families,” he says.

As media creators, it is imperative to understand what can be done to up our game in the educational media space, no matter what the delivery vehicle. Part of that entails informing parents about resources available to them today to help them find the best educational content broadcasters and software publishers have to offer. The Cooney Center as well as many other interested groups, foundations, and policy makers are already quickly working on the next new report, and latest research findings that will one day in the near future move the industry needle even further ahead, as well as create many more questions we’ve yet to imagine, as evidence by the volume of questions this report is sure to generate.

Additional video links:
1.) Vicky Rideout – Learning from Home report overview
2.) Michael Levine – Learning from Home report overview
3.) Playlist of all Learning from Home speakers
4.) The complete Learning from Home discussion (speakers with audience discussion)

[Scott Traylor is the CEO and founder of 360KID, a youth-focused organization that specializes in developing interactive content, apps, and games for broadcasters, publishers and organizations that wish to engage kids of any age.]

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Tricks of the Trade: On Making Magic with Apps

Thursday, November 14th, 2013

[The following is an article I wrote for the November 14, 2013 issue of KidScreen's online iKids Magazine.]

A photo of Theo Gray during his Disney Animated app presentation

Theo Gray, co-founder of Touch Press, presenting the new Disney Animated app. (Click photo to see larger version.)

Every year in early November, there’s a very special children’s interactive media conference called Dust or Magic that’s held a short drive outside of New York City. The name of the event comes from a 17th century Japanese poet, Matsuo Basho, who wrote, “An idea can turn to dust or magic depending on the talent that rubs against it.”

This is the underlying theme that weaves itself throughout the hundreds of apps that are discussed during the event, and a select few that are presented live. In the ever-expanding world of the children’s interactive media, which products are considered “magic” or “dust?” And why? As an industry of creators, we ask ourselves “What can we learn from the good, as well as the bad?”

Dust or Magic is the brainchild of Warren Buckleitner, who is also the editor of Children’s Technology Review magazine, a former blogger for The New York Times and an expert in the children’s digital world.

This was my 12th year attending Dust or Magic. Over that time I’ve seen the interactive industry grow through talking books from LeapFrog, numerous Tickle Me Elmo dolls, virtual worlds like Club Penguin and Webkins, all the way to today’s vibrant app world for kids. I’ve seen many unknown speakers go on to release top selling products in their field, create new and compelling ways to engage children, and all the while raise the bar of quality for the entire children’s industry. This year there was no shortage of stellar presentations, and three in particular are worth sharing with those who could not attend the event. These three presentations rose the bar.

The opening presentation was delivered by Theo Gray, founder and app developer for the company Touch Press. Gray’s accomplishments include receiving an ig Nobel Prize in chemistry, but his app work is second to none. Gray has created a number of stellar apps, one called The Elements, another the Solar System, which sets new standards for excellence in app creation. However, at this year’s event he presented his latest work, an app for Disney that chronicles its animation history called Disney Animated. This new body of work was completely amazing, and there was one moment in Theo’s presentation, a breathtaking, jaw-dropping moment. Gray had created a single screen, color bar chart that included frames from every single animated movie ever created by Disney. With a touch of the finger, you could call up a single frame of animation from any movie every created by the company. It was a truly amazing moment.

Later, we were treated to a presentation by the founder and CEO of a small startup called Tinybop. Never heard of Tinybop? They launched their first kids’ app in August, and it has blossomed into the industry’s best overnight success story yet. This number-one selling app is called The Human Body and it’s rewriting the rules of child engagement. Simple. Clean. Funny. Engaging. Enlightening. The founder, Raul Gutierrez, shared his business plan with the Dust or Magic community, and you can see why it was a presentation long to be remembered.

The next notable presentation came from Chip Donohue, dean of distance learning and continuing education for the Erikson Institute as well as senior fellow at the Fred Rogers Center. Over the past few years, Donohue has helped define a best practices position paper for using technology in early learning, an excellent road map for using tablets with young children. As he pointed out in his presentation, there’s been a lot happening in the interactive space over just these last few weeks, and he put together a presentation with all the latest recommendations and best practices for engaging children intentionally through new media platforms. A fantastic resource for everyone in the kids’ biz.

These speakers were accompanied by unreleased new work from Toca Boca and its newly acquired sister company Sago Sago, as well as preschool app development tips from Duck Duck Moose. Magic, it was in the air.

Extra links:

Speaker presentation playlist (15 videos)

App demo playlist (23 videos)

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A Conversation With Vicky Rideout

Friday, November 1st, 2013

Summarizing “Zero to Eight Children’s Media Use in America 2013″

[The following is an article I wrote for the November 2013 issue of Children's Technology Review. A PDF copy of the article from this magazine can be downloaded here.]

A photo of Vicky Rideout from an earlier 2013 presentation

For those of us that work in children’s media, there’s nothing like finding a fresh, data filled report.

Zero to Eight Children’s Media Use in America 2013” is Vicki Rideout’s latest in a series of reports commissioned by Common Sense Media. Having followed Vicky’s work for more than a decade, I asked her for an overview of her findings.

The first key finding is this: Television and video game use is down for children compared to just two years ago. (Yes, down, not up!) In addition, overall screen media use is down compared to what was recorded just two years ago.

Television viewing in the bedroom is also down by a sizable amount. As with the television and video game drop Vicky says “I’d like to look back on these data points from a future report to see if this is a bump or a trend.” This finding does beg some additional questions that cannot be answered through the report, like has there been a drop in the number of televisions owned in the home? Has the drop in television viewing in the bedroom shifted to video viewing on a tablet in the bedroom? Vicky says it is too early to tell if this is a trend.

According to Rideout “Little drops in each platform add up to a half hour of less screen time per day on traditional screens. Then when you add in the increase in mobile use it brings that number down to 20 minutes less screen time per day. While this drop in overall screen time is significant and noteworthy, I’d like to see what the research says in another two years.”

There’s a lot of material in this report about tablet and related mobile media use. For example, two years ago only 8% of parents owned a tablet. “Today it’s 40% and children’s tablet ownership is nearly similar to that of their parents from the 2011 report. Years ago handheld video game manufacturers noted that when an older sibling purchased a new handheld gaming device, a younger sibling would ultimately receive the older device. Could the same thing be happening here with parents purchasing a new tablet and giving the children their old one? This report can’t answer that question specifically, but one thing is clear: Tablet ownership by children will increase in the years to come.

Another key trend: there is a giant shift in media use, and “the tablet is a game changer.” Vicky told me that there is “some computer use among young children, starting as early as four years of age, but because the tablet has simplified the interface so much and made things so intuitive, we see really young children successfully using this platform. If a one or two year old child can turn the pages of a board book, that same child can touch and swipe a tablet. If that child can point to an image on a board book, then that child can launch an app. As a result, a large world of content is made available to these young children. The floor for how young children use this platform has gone way down compared to other technological innovations, even compared to the Wii, which was a huge leap forward in terms of intuitive use and interface deign.”

In addition Vicky notes: “People keep saying how children are so technologically smart. We have that notion backwards. It’s the technology that’s become smart, so smart that a kid, or even a baby can use it. This change is also opening up access to content that is not just about passive video watching.

“People keep asking me ‘Is this a good thing or a bad thing?’ Unless you believe that a screen per se is a bad thing for kids no matter what, I usually respond that this is just a thing, it’s just a tablet. The good or bad about a tablet depends on the quality of the content you share with a child through this new medium.”

Vicky’s comments just begin to scratch the surface of what’s included in this new report. However, Vicky also shared she is working on a new report, focused on the same zero to eight demographic, but this time she’s writing it for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center. This report will take a deep dive into educational media, eBooks, and joint media engagement (a fancy term for parents who share in the same media experience with their child). The scheduled date of release is January 23, 2014. We look forward to reading more!

Related links:

Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America 2013
Common Sense Media

VIDEO – Parenting in the Age of Digital Technology – Vicky Rideout interview (2013)
360KID

Parenting in the Age of Digital Technology (2013)
Northwestern University


VIDEO – Vicky Rideout interview – Zero to Eight Children’s Media Use Research Overview (2011)

360KID

Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America (2011)
Common Sense Media

Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds (2010)
Kaiser Family Foundation


Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Yr-olds (2005)

Kaiser Family Foundation

The Effects of Electronic Media on Children Ages Zero to Six: A History of Research (2005)
Kaiser Family Foundation

Zero to Six: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers and Preschoolers (2003)
Kaiser Family Foundation

Kids & Media @ The New Millennium (1999)
Kaiser Family Foundation

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Tech Toy Magic at Toy Fair

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

For more than a decade I’ve been going to the annual NY Toy Fair, and I go primarily for one reason. To check out the latest technology toys. I’ve seen some amazing toys over the years, as well as hundreds, maybe thousands of other toys that just didn’t make the cut. This year a few new tech toy products caught my eye, and I’d like to share what excites me about them. I’m not highlighting these products because of their suggested retail price, and my praise has nothing to do with how well I think they might sell come next holiday season. My interest is in the idea, and the execution of that idea. With that as background, let’s dig in.

Barbie’s Makeup Mirror by Mattel

Mattel's new Barbie Makeover Mirror nicely integrates an iPad with pretend play.

Let me start by saying Barbie is not my thing. I’m not really drawn to Barbie, and I usually pass right by all things related to dolls, but not this year. In an iPad world filled with shovelware there are few tangible toy and app collaborations that rise to the level of noteworthy. There have been too many forced mergers of toys and apps together on the iPad that simply don’t work. The toy world has been carelessly forcing this merger, hoping to find an answer without actually understanding the question… and that’s where this Barbie product really shines. Finally, someone merged software and a child’s play pattern together seamlessly. This vanity toy reminds me of the vanity toy tables that were popular with young girls many years ago. Dress up and pretend play have always been a strong play pattern with young children. This app and toy combination hits the nail on the head, by using the iPad’s onboard camera to allow a user to play and try on different personalities through digital makeup, and then easily share those creations with a friend. Lots of fun and lots of strong play. Bravo Mattel! My hope is what you have created will shine as a beacon for the rest of the toy world (and app world as well) to learn from, that you just can’t throw an app and a toy together and call it fun. Find the play pattern first, and build from there. Plain and simple.

Flutterbyes by Spin Master

Spin Master's newest flying creation, the flying fairy.

This next tech toy product defines a real milestone in the toy industry. The Spin Master flying fairy product called Flutterbyes nearly knocked me over when I saw it. Why? The toy industry has been dreaming of bringing a small flying fairy to market long before I started attending Toy Fair. I’ve seen toy inventors talk about it, wonder, plan, scheme, invent, try, fail, try again, and yet there has never been any really great breakthrough. Ever. Until now. Spin Master did it, and it makes sense that they achieved this milestone since they have been sitting on some serious flying toy technology through their Air Hogs line. This milestone marks the beginning of light weight rechargeable batteries that can be a part of all kinds of future flying toys, as well as the flying stabilization technology included within. Just imagine where this will go. This flying fairy is one simple, and elegant toy. Well done Spin Master! (Video clip)

Cubelets by Modular Robotics

Cubelets by Modular Robotics

I grew up on electronics kits. Lot’s of pre-cut wires and metal spring connectors were part of my everyday electronic play. Spending say 30 minutes building a project with another 15 minutes to figure out where the mistake was in order for the whole thing to work. No more! Cubelets has success built-in from the moment you place one cube next to another. Cubelets are a series of electronic cubes where each cube has its own unique characteristic. Some cubes are power sources. Others have motors. Some have lights. Others include sensors and some even include modifiable logic through programming. There’s even a website where you can download sample programming code made by other Cubelet fans to try out on your own. What most electronic kits miss is the ability to experiment and this collection of cubes allows for never ending building and experimentation. Want to make your own motion detection robot? Easy. Want to make a lighthouse? Done. Have an idea for something totally unique and original? You can make it! This is an amazingly powerful toy with endless possibilities. I can’t wait to see how this company grows over the next year. (Video clip)

Romo the controllable, programmable robot by Romotive

These are the big ideas I thought were executed marvelously at this year’s Toy Fair. I do have additions to my list, but I have been following these products and companies long before Toy Fair. They include Romo the robot from Romotive (video clip), Sphero from Orbotix (video clip), and the brainwave sensing technology from the company NeuroSky. All strong contenders to keep an eye out for in the tech toy space this year.

Did you go to Toy Fair? Was there a toy or technology that caught your attention? Was there something you saw that was a step forward in this space? Or maybe a step backward? Please share in the comments below!

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