A Book About Love

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Normally I write about kids and technology. Today’s topic concerns a single kid, my son Jonah, who just wrote his fourth science book, A Book About Love. David Brooks writes, in a review in the New York Times: “The book is interesting on nearly every page.”

My favorite chapters in A Book About Love are the ones on parent-child love and attachment theory, in which our earliest relationships are seen as the template for every subsequent close relationship. Jonah makes much of the fact that the kind of love that lasts a lifetime takes effort and grit. His own story exemplifies this. I couldn’t be more proud of Jonah and the beautiful book he has written, despite some stiff headwinds.

Again, from David Brooks: “He mixes a wide range of reference, both scientific and literary, in a way that is sometimes familiar but sometimes surprising and illuminating. Good writers make writing look easy, but what people like Lehrer do is not easy at all.”

Buy the book, read it, and enjoy!

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The Future of Digital Play…Maybe.

I’m reading an interesting book about the play patterns of rats, by Sergio and Vivien Pellis. It’s called The Playful Brain, and presents a strong evolutionary argument why play is critical, across species.  If rats don’t get a chance to “play/fight” with their peers, they are basically a hot mess. Play-deprived rats can’t even figure out how to make babies, and try to mount from the wrong side! “Play as a calibrating mechanism for emotions, motor control, stress reduction, role relationships…is strongly documented.”

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We can all agree that play is critical for normal development. How does this relate to the current state of children’s digital apps?  As someone who is in the business of creating kid’s apps, I have to admit to a certain amount of ambivalence towards our industry.  Apps are ideal for quiet time on the couch, when mom or dad is making dinner and as an alternative to TV time. They aren’t, however, social in nature. Apps are also sedentary, and we all know the problems with that, for both kids and adults. Another reason for my ambivalence is the crushing amount of mostly me-too apps that are available in the app stores. There are still good games coming out, but I am increasingly bored with the offerings, and definitely see a fatigue on the part of parents who are simply not downloading as many kids apps as they used to. This in turn discourages new app developers with fresh ideas, who see no path to profitability.

Play in the Future, with AR

I think it’s time we rethink play in the digital space. This week NPR had a great story about a new version of Pokemon that uses augmented reality, tied to notable landmarks in your environment, coming out in July. Looking through your smartphone, you see a wild Charmander  (virtual, obviously), sitting on the grass or floating in the air. You can train it to be yours. The game uses GPS technology and a large database of locations to blend gameplay with your real environment. This has been done a few times before, but never with a mass market, 20-year-old kids brand like Pokemon. 

 Which brings me to Legacy’s newest app for kids, AR Worlds (working title). We’re using a smartphone that isn’t available until this Fall together with Google Tango, so some of what I am about to describe will sound like science fiction. It is the first consumer device to support augmented reality plus wayfinding, room scanning and more, which it does by including specialized software and 2-3D cameras. 

AR Worlds is a combination arcade shooter and coloring book, in 3D, for kids ages 6+. Once your actual house, its walls and objects, are scanned by the Tango device, you move around the rooms, looking through your phone, for virtual objects to color. Creatures spawn randomly around you, moving towards you until you aim, fire, and color them. (I was playing hide and seek with a zombie the other day in our office, pretty great!).

Screenshot_2016-06-23-09-53-02 Once they are colored, some of the virtual characters need something else, e.g., the baseball zombie is looking for a bat. You search around your room until you find what they need, at which point they do a happy dance. Soon your bedroom is full of colorful virtual zombies, birds, dragons, and more, all come to life!

I love the old fashioned play patterns in our game…everything from hide and go seek, coloring, and searching for hidden objects…and how they can be enhanced with the addition of digital technology. Plus having a virtual character follow you as you move around the room is mind-blowing. Kids love to be the boss, and this is the ultimate in control.

I believe that AR/VR technology on the horizon is going to completely shake up our ideas of what is possible with digital play. And it’s past time for some new thinking on the subject.  Look for the new Lenovo Phab 2 Pro and Legacy’s new app this Fall in the Google Play Store.

E3 Impressions

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As anyone who has worked with Legacy knows, the real company talent lies in our amazing staff. So, I asked three of them – Adam, Andrew, and Patrick – to give me their impressions of last week’s wild and crazy Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles. While smaller than previous shows, it still provides an accurate reflection of the state of the video game industry (and also still induces brain seizures, given the level of flash and noise).  Enjoy!

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TAKE 1

 Nintendo had an absolutely brilliant showing of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The fact that it was the only major demo in their booth was a big departure for Nintendo and shows just how much faith and support they are pouring into this franchise. The gameplay appears to continue taking inspiration from large, open world experiences and introduces old and new toys and gizmos. And it does so with a very charming, very familiar gameplay and art style from Windwaker and Twilight Princess. Every viewpoint, every nook and cranny begs to be poke, prodded and explored—and that’s exactly what I want out of my Zelda. Gliding on the wind, climbing mountains, chopping trees, taming horses, frying up food, physics based gameplay. Sign me up! Hype Meter: 11/10.

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TAKE 2

I go to E3 for those ineffable moments of experience and presence that you can’t get from watching a video. A few years back, it was Kinect and other motion-tracking software. Watching someone do it and experiencing it yourself are very different propositions. Now it’s VR.

But the most memorable experience for me was getting a chance to experience the long-awaited Abzû from developer Giant Squid. Created by a small studio headed by the art director of the award-winning Flower and Journey, it’s a beautiful (and I mean beautiful!) undersea exploration game. No blood, no combat. Just enchantment, relaxation and a gently mystical undersea world that transported me far away from the bedlam of the Convention Center (Releases on PS4 and Steam Aug 2nd)

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Take 3

For me, the focus of E3 this year wasn’t so much on the games themselves, but on the technology that drives those games, specifically VR. Almost every major company had something to show in the VR space, whether it was adding a VR experience to existing games like Skyrim and Doom, bringing old franchises to the cutting edge like Resident Evil 7, or creating brand new IPs strictly for VR like Raw Data by Survios.  

Adam, Andrew, and Patrick hit on the highlights, thanks guys. For my part, I wish there were fewer 1st person shooters and sequels at E3. On the other hand, there were definitely fewer booth babes than in years past! Maybe some day our industry will truly reflect the diversity of game genres and customers. One can hope.

3D Printing in Schools – A Fad or Here to Stay?

It’s back to the future, all over again. The trend in schools to create Maker Labs, complete with 3D printers, laser cutters, etc., is exciting, but really not that different than traditional shop classes. Of course, modern tools are now infused with technology, but there’s another difference that may be even more critical to the success of Maker Labs: software.

In order to create something from scratch and then 3D print it, students must learn how to use a 3D modeling software program. These programs are difficult, to say the least. Even an entry level product like Tinkercad requires that you think in 3D, on a 2D screen. The ability to mentally rotate a 3D object varies widely from person to person. Plus, it takes practice to think about subtracting space from a 3D object (which is why sculpting and woodcarving are difficult). Finally, designing objects to be water-tight and with surfaces and support structures that allow for actual 3D printing is challenging.

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In other words, it simply isn’t enough to teach students how to use a 3D printer. We also have to provide 3D modeling software that is easily mastered and additional educational software that directly supports curriculum objectives. Let’s face it, students love 3D printing, and that enthusiasm needs to be harnessed to achieve specific learning outcomes.

What if we create educational software that allows students to simulate different options for their 3D project, prior to printing it out? Through this process, students can test out their assumptions and learn from their mistakes, without wasting valuable filament and print time. Legacy Interactive (my company) is working on a 3D printed microscope that does exactly that.

Legacy’s unique simulation software allows students to make limited changes to a 3D model, and get accurate feedback, prior to printing. Students arrive at a correct solution, through a trial and error process informed by the relevant math. Here’s how it works:

  1. Students can vary the length of the microscope’s body tube; there are 3 different settings to choose from.
  2. Students can vary the placement of 4 different lenses, vary the orientation of the lenses (convex VS concave), and vary the distance between the lenses.  
  3. There is an optimum relationship between the length of the body tube and the placement and orientation of each lens, that is determined by algebraic equations provided in the student worksheets. Included in the teacher materials is information about the science of optics, convergent and divergent lenses, magnification, focal length, etc.
  4. Students try out different solutions and get appropriate feedback from the program, e.g., “your microscope is out of focus.” They may try many permutations and combinations of options before resorting to solving the problem with the given math formulas.
  5. There are numerous correct solutions; when the student has arrived at one, the program tells them that they can proceed to the next phase or to print, if the project is now complete.

We believe that this is truly an educational process, where students learn the required curriculum content exactly when they need it, to solve a real-world problem. This process makes learning relevant, timely, open-ended (with multiple solutions) and engaging. Best of all, you have a real working microscope to show for your efforts!

If 3D printing is going to be successful in schools, the trick isn’t just in making user-friendly 3D printers; it’s about enabling project based learning tied to specific curriculum objectives. We believe simulation software, combined with easy-to-modify 3D models, is the key to success.

A Unique Opportunity

I have been in the technology field, specifically video games and educational technology, for more than 30 years, running three small businesses in LA and producing many games and apps. Throughout that time, I have witnessed firsthand the lack of diversity in our business, especially women, and its negative consequences for product design and development.

About a year ago I was introduced to Liz Ackerman Hicks, the dynamic principal of a new public school that is opening this August – GALA (Girls Academic Leadership Academy). This is LAUSD’s first all-girls school, for grades 6-12, and is focused on teaching STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. It is a rigorous, college preparatory curriculum, and open to any girl in the district. The school is co-located on the historic campus of Los Angeles High School in mid-city. Additional classes are offered in art, architecture, and design, including an innovative Maker Lab with 3D printers. Project based learning make courses feel relevant by solving real life problems as part of the curriculum. Extracurricular clubs and activities include sports, music, robotics, and flight club (with flight simulators).

Cute girl showing homework on tablet.

Why is GALA an all-girls school? Research shows that girls do equally as well as boys in math and science in elementary school, but their grades and test scores falter in middle school and fall further in high school. All-girls schools, especially in urban areas, show higher graduation rates and higher enrollment and persistence in STEM courses.

My ask is simple. If you know of any girls who might be interested in attending GALA this August, there are still some openings for prospective 9th graders. Please help us get the word out about this wonderful and FREE public school alternative. Apply here.

It’s time to change the status quo, and what better way than through K-12 education? I couldn’t be more proud to be a volunteer for GALA.

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3D Printing Woes

Just as pundits predict that Brazil will be the next economic superpower, a 3D printing revolution is always right around the corner. But 3D printing has still not caught on with consumers. Why?

Let’s think about the types of customers who typically want a 3D printer.

  1. Creative hobbyists see 3D printing as the way to make all their artistic dreams come true. They think it, therefore they can make it.
  2. Practical do-it-yourselfers imagine printing custom pieces to replace broken parts. They will never have to go to a hardware store again!

So these eager folks buy a 3D printer and download some 3D files from Thingiverse. Voila, they print out their first key chain! Everything is fine, despite the occasional filament jamming, until they decide to design something original. And that’s where everything falls apart. Legacy created 3D PRINT KITS (™) to help beginners learn the ropes and provide guided instruction in printing and assembling a clock and guitar.  But our Kits are only incrementally more customizeable than what is currently offered online.

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Creating a 3D model from scratch, or even editing an existing file, is very difficult, with a steep learning curve. Even if you successfully figure out all the different design tools, people simply have a hard time thinking in 3D (some more than others). First, mental rotation ability varies widely from person to person. Second, it takes an enormous amount of practice to think about subtracting space from a 3D object (which is why sculpting and woodcarving are so difficult). Finally, designing things to be water-tight and with surfaces and support structures that allow for actual 3D printing is really challenging.

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One of the easiest 3D modeling tools is Tinkercad, a free entry level product from Autodesk with many accompanying tutorials. However, even Tinkercad can’t address the difficulty of thinking in 3D using a 2D screen. (Try the tutorials and see for yourself.) Will 3D design and printing ever get easy enough to reach the mass market? Or is 3D printing only for the highly skilled?

There are some possible new design tools on the horizon that may soon allow novices to more easily create in 3D. If you haven’t yet seen this breathtaking video of Google’s Tilt Brush, a 3D painting tool using virtual reality, check it out. What if you could create or modify a 3D model in VR? It would likely be easier than it is now, as you physically move your body around the virtual object, seeing and manipulating it from all perspectives.

Another tool that is quickly maturing and becoming affordable is 3D cameras that capture the shape and dimensions of a physical object, automatically turning them into 3D files that can be modified using any 3D software. Imagine how tempting it will be, (but unfortunately illegal), to take a picture of your favorite action figure with one of these specialized cameras. You can even edit the resulting 3D model, to add a cape or some other article of clothing, before printing out your unique version. Cameras like this are already included with HP Sprout computers, and coming soon to mobile via Google and Lenovo’s Project Tango devices and Intel’s RealSense.

hpSo help is around the corner, but until 3D graphics software becomes easier to use, I don’t expect the consumer market for 3D printers to take off. The education market, however, is a different story…for next time.

How to Improve Memory for Virtual Items In AR/VR

Google’s Project Tango is the most interesting technology I have seen in a long while. It utilizes motion-sensing and depth-perceiving cameras to turn a mobile device into a “wayfinding” and Augmented Reality (AR) powerhouse! The special cameras on Tango devices enable “computer vision” that can map the area around you and detect your position in it.

The Project Tango dev kit unit.

The implications for interior mapping are huge. Using a phone with the requisite cameras, Google Maps will know where you are inside of any public building that has been scanned, and will direct you (perhaps with footprints visible through your phone) to the nearest bathroom, restaurant, elevator as easily as it now directs a driver to a gas station. What’s more, virtual items that appear around you are remembered by the device and even if you move on, when you return to that location the virtual item is still present and visible.

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Some of the use cases for Tango technology from the Project Tango website.

Legacy is developing apps for kids on the Tango platform, and there are some interesting memory issues that arise almost immediately given these new capabilities. Imagine a child playing a digital “Where’s Waldo” game on this smart phone, during which they search their physical environment for hidden “treasures.” Should we assume that memory operates the same way in kids, regardless of whether or not the objects in their environment are real or unreal? Do children remember the number, placement and characteristics of virtual objects in a room, the same as they would for real objects? (Remember that virtual objects are only visible when seen through a screen.)

AR is relatively new in the tech world, which means very little specific research is available to guide our app design. Instead, we have to rely on some basic memory findings from cognitive psychology. Here’s a quick summary of the relevant research.

“Spatial memory” refers to memory for the position of things in the environment. Spatial memory can be long-term, e.g., remembering the route to your friend’s house, or it can use working memory, like when you know the position of cars around you as you change lanes on the freeway. “Working memory,” is a transient form of memory that holds information just long enough for you to act on it. (Try this surprisingly difficult spatial working memory test, here!)

Adults can typically hold 6-7 pieces of information in their working memory at one time. (There’s a reason why phone numbers are 7 digits.) For kids under 12, it’s typically fewer items. That means that if an AR game for children relies on spatial working memory, and assuming that it works the same way for virtual as well as physical items, there should only be about 4 or fewer objects for the child to actively keep in mind at one time. Otherwise, the user may experience mental overload and not be able to complete the task.

Here’s where it gets really interesting. Because Project Tango knows your location in a physical environment, we have some additional tools to assist the user’s working memory. Visual cues help us remember where things appear spatially. Do you ever think about surrounding landmarks when trying to remember how to get to your favorite restaurant? The best cues are distal cues, which are objects in the distance and have a fixed position (e.g. mountains, tall buildings). Proximal cues, i.e., objects right next to the item we want to remember, aren’t as helpful but are still better than nothing.

This is good news for Project Tango, because the surrounding environment is usually familiar (like the child’s room) and often already contains distal cues (e.g., pictures on the wall, windows, and doors). All the physical room cues available in AR will help children remember the positions of virtual objects that they can’t see without looking through a screen. (Compared to virtual reality, AR has an advantage in the spatial memory department because many visual cues come built-in to the real-world environment.)

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An example of an AR app, Toy Car RC, that incorporates virtual objects in a familiar real-world environment.

And here’s the best news for our hypothetical hidden object game for Project Tango devices. Because Project Tango knows your location within a scanned room, the app designer can always spawn more objects close to where you are standing. Even if you forget where in the room you saw the treasure chest, the app designer can ensure that you will see it again regardless of where you are and how good or bad your spatial memory is. So ultimately, memory limitations do not have to limit the fun, assuming the designer uses all the capabilities of the technology.

Stay tuned for more explorations about designing for augmented reality and Project Tango. We’re just getting started!

Apps To Help You Quit Smoking

My mom smoked Camels until we could barely see through the sticky car windshield. I’d hang my head out the back window and sing, even on freezing winter days, just to avoid the clouds of smoke from her and my dad who liked to puff on cigars. Then mom developed serious emphysema, further cementing my dislike of the pernicious habit. Unfortunately, my feelings were not passed on to our youngest daughter, Leah, who’s been smoking since college. (See her picture looking super cool, which is why I suspect she started smoking in the first place.) She’s tried to quit, but nothing sticks. Patches, vaping…

So that got me thinking about all the exercise, diet, and smoking apps out there that try to help us modify our behavior, and I wondered if any of them were effective. I’ve noticed people starting to talk about how many steps they took that day, or what their calorie intake was. So much information is available to us now, thanks to wearable devices, sensors, and apps. But is information enough to make us change our lifestyle or behavior? Research isn’t very encouraging.

For one thing, information without an emotional punch doesn’t have an impact, certainly not enough to make us change ingrained habits. For example, looking at the Starbucks menu on the wall, I can see that my favorite salted caramel mocha frappuccino is a mere 510 calories. I order it anyway. Perhaps if they told me that it would take 3 hours of rapid walking to burn off those calories, I might pause first. One can only hope. 

The reason why information alone doesn’t seem to change behavior is due to something known as the affect heuristic. The affect heuristic refers to people’s tendency to base judgments on emotion or mood instead of the facts. Information and stats don’t change behavior; people change their behavior when they feel something.

So what’s an app designer to do? Increasingly, designers are using “gamification” techniques to motivate users to achieve long-term goals. But what does it mean, to “gamify” an app? And does it work?

Turning a tedious task into a game, in order to encourage engagement and retention, requires various game elements be integrated, including: 1) Objectives (short-term and long-term), 2) Rules, 3) Players/Characters, 4) Choices and Interactivity, 5) Feedback, and 6) Emotional Reactions and Rewards. When done correctly, gamification works. However, research also shows that you cannot simply add a point system or achievements to a task to gamify it successfully. Gamification might sound easy and fun, but it must be implemented systematically and integrated fully, to improve outcomes.

Ok, with that background information, let’s return to smoking cessation apps for daughter Leah. First up, Kwit, a popular app, which uses several techniques to help users stop smoking. In Kwit, the user earns points and achievements in multiple categories, based on self-reports.

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Kwit provides feedback on real-life progress, e.g., how many days since the last time you smoked, Users can even request motivational cards. (See “Stand firm” below.)

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While all of these features are fine, the question is if points, achievements, information, and encouragement are sufficient to motivate the user to quit smoking? I doubt it. If you look at the type of feedback provided, it doesn’t translate the numbers into something that would be more meaningful and potentially have an emotional impact.  In addition, a key to successful gamification is abstraction of the problem, often through the use of story and characters. Kwit includes a point system and the ability to share successes on social media, but no narrative. 

For comparison, let’s look at an app in development by Smashing Ideas called Learn to Quit. It’s designed specifically for the mentally ill (the first of its kind), but according to what I’ve seen from the website and video demos, it could be used by anyone. In fact, based on the information we have so far, Learn to Quit seems like a really good example of how to gamify the smoking cessation process.

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Images from Learn to Quit

Learn to Quit utilizes Acceptance Commitment Therapy to help users learn the best techniques for quitting. The user plays a character and travels down a path through “the swamp of urges.” Learn to Quit has achievements and statistics like Kwit does, but it applies gamification much more successfully. Here’s a summary from the website:

As the user navigates their journey through a “swamp of urges,” they move through modules where they are taught lessons about how to be mindful and change their psychological relationship with them. As they master each lesson, new modules are unlocked. These intrinsic motivators are reinforced extrinsically as well through a financial tally showing how much money a user has saved by reducing their cigarette consumption.”

Another important difference between the two apps is that Learn to Quit continually reminds the user of his or her intrinsic motivators for quitting. Interestingly, people are more likely to stay motivated long-term when their motivation is internal rather than external. In fact, externalizing rewards for an already-motivated person is a bad thing because the external motivator replaces their internal motivators. This is a big problem with the gamification of tasks like smoking cessation or losing weight: motivated people might actually become less engaged as a result of an external point system!

The Learn to Quit app won’t be launched for a while; the developers are working with the University of Washington to test its effectiveness in clinical trials. It can’t come too soon for Leah!

 

Fisher-Price’s Vision of the Future of Parenting

Have you seen this new video? It’s short, and provides some whiz-bang examples of what Fisher-Price thinks life will be like for children and parents in the next decade. Watch how augmented reality, smart toys, the internet of things, machine learning, and a few other technologies that I can’t identify will become part of our lives.

The video may seem like a pipe dream (especially all the holograms), but a ten year time frame is probably about right.  Here’s my take on the vision.

What you see: A high-tech baby crib/monitoring system that is connected to other devices; children’s height data displayed on a wall.

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The internet of things is more than a gimmicky watch. Wearable devices already collect data on your heart rate, sleep cycles, and exercise–why not a smart crib that collects that data on your baby? The crib could alert you when your baby cries, identify when your baby has a temperature, monitor brain waves and breathing, and predict the best time for a nap. Some baby monitoring systems are already available that perform a few of these functions. It won’t be too long before cribs are equipped with them, too.

And the height data projected on the wall looks pretty cool and will definitely save on new paint.

Data_WallBut is it possible to have too much data? Who owns it? Imagine having data on your children’s activity level, learning outcomes, GPS location, and more, every day, all day. Parents armed with such graphs and figures might easily draw conclusions that are incorrect. Children develop at different rates and labels like “hyperactivity” are culturally bound.  I worry about the interpretation and use of all the data that will soon be at parents’ fingertips.  What tools will be needed to help parents decipher the data?

And what about privacy? If you thought privacy concerns surrounding Hello Barbie (the new talking Barbie) were complicated, just think about potential issues with child development, intelligence, personality, playtime, and health data. How does a parent or teen opt out?

What you see: Children interact with a virtual bird; a classic rock-a-stack toy provides a hologram reward when stacked correctly; a toddler follows numbers with a smart walker.Hologram_Play

“Augmented” games and toys will become more engaging, interactive, and personalizable. Classic toys will incorporate new features while still retaining the original play patterns that make them great. In these examples, technology adds wonder and delight to playtime, extending the life cycle and experience of traditional toys.

But floating bird holograms make me wonder…how does a young child distinguish between real and imaginary in this new “augmented” world? How potentially confusing is it to blend real and virtual data, where glass doesn’t always act like glass and the outside flora appears inside?

One approach, to make the experience more understandable, is to put the young child in control of the experience, by connecting their action to a specific result. For example, every time they complete the stacking toy correctly, the 3D image appears above the rings, but only as a consequence of their action and not otherwise.  A young child will delight in repeating an action to achieve a predictable result, over and over again, and as a result, develop a sense of competency and control over the experience, even if it is virtual. This is in contrast to simply populating their environment with inexplicable and arbitrary 3D characters and objects. It makes for a pretty video, but feels weird and unsettling to me.

What you see: A little girl assembles pieces of a toy from a kit and prints a 3D model of it

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Technology will hopefully provide the tools to make all of us more creative.  3D printers are at the forefront of the “maker” movement, allowing us to customize and build 3D objects at home. Legacy publishes 3D Print Kits to guide hobbyists through fun projects like making your own guitar or microscope, while Mattel has announced a 3D printer (ThingMaker) for kids to create their own toys. As 3D printers become more user-friendly and less costly, it won’t be long before 3D printing becomes ubiquitous.

As someone who has designed many different digital creativity tools for kids, I worry that as we limit choices to simplify the process (as happens in the video), we are also downgrading the experience by reducing opportunities for self-expression. Simply put, it’s the difference between paint-by-number and drawing a picture from scratch. Companies like Fisher-Price will continue to struggle with the right balance of directed activity, aimed at accomplishing a specific goal, and open-ended play that fosters imagination and creativity. Sure, some tech for kids can and should have rules, extrinsic rewards and correct answers. That’s fine, as long as we don’t turn little people into automatons. It is infinitely more difficult, however, to design toys that expand choices rather than limit them.

What you see: Reading a personalized digital book.

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Gorgeous interactive storybooks are already available, my favorites are by Nosy Crow. As technology improves, digital books will become personal, changing based on a child’s preferences, experiences, and reading level. Adaptable books and toys like this are promising because they are more effective learning tools and will grow with your child.

Overall, I think that the Fisher Price vision of the future of parenting is a reasonable projection of where we are headed, and isn’t as frightening as some critics portray.  Obviously there are issues to resolve, but as long as we put the emphasis where it belongs, on building healthy and happy kids who reach their full potential, new technologies will continue to enhance the lives of families.

Spatial Ability, Testosterone, and STEM

Takeaway: Women have more difficulty with spatial tasks, which may impact their interest in STEM fields, but AR/VR and 3D printing are coming to the rescue!

It is a well-known fact that men consistently outperform women on spatial reasoning in IQ tests, specifically the Mental Rotations Task (MRT). I shudder when I see the images below from the MRT, with instructions to “select all of the shapes that are exactly the same as the first object in different positions.” Do you know the answer? Fast forward to the end if you’re curious.

Mental Rotation Task

What happens when you take home that Ikea cabinet and try to assemble it? It doesn’t take long before I am speed dialing taskrabbit!  According to recent research, men are more likely to be able to assemble furniture without any instructions. With instructions, however, there was no significant difference between men and women and their ability to assemble furniture. Consistent with your experience? It is with mine.

As you might guess, both biological and social factors can explain the gender difference in spatial ability. One of my favorite studies reported that women perform significantly better on the Mental Rotations Task when given a shot of testosterone. (Sorry, I prefer my poor map reading skills to that!) The gender difference is even found in infants, which also suggests a biological underpinning.

As far as social explanations, look no further than Legos and other building blocks. Until a few years ago, the only Lego products available were designed for typical boy fantasies such as spaceships and forts. Not surprisingly, our two sons loved spending weekends with their dad building out an expansive airport while our two daughters would have nothing to do with it. From infancy, boys are given toys to take apart and reassemble, while girls are given dolls and animals. Fortunately, construction-based toys geared toward girls are becoming more popular with the release of products like Lego Friends and GoldieBlox.

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So why should we care about the continuing spatial gender gap?  Spatial ability is positively associated with performance in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) tasks. This means that women may underperform in STEM compared to their male counterparts as a result of their spatial abilities, and this performance difference can affect the number of women who become interested in STEM and ultimately succeed in STEM fields.

The good news is that some types of spatial training can be effective in eliminating the gender gap. Researchers have found improvements in mental rotation ability in girls (and boys with low initial performance) after 3D training in Virtual Reality. This means that the integration of Augmented and Virtual Reality into STEM education may provide the optimal environment for girls to succeed with spatial tasks. Similarly, practice with 3D models in “Maker Labs” in schools may encourage girls to practice and improve their 2D to 3D translation skills in a highly motivating, real world context. They build objects in a 3D graphics program on their computer, then print them out in a 3D printer.

There is more at stake than ever before; spatial ability is critical to many 21st century design and STEM related careers.  Childhood toys and new technologies can be exploited to help minimize the differences between students in their spatial abilities, and hence encourage interest in STEM fields, regardless of gender.

Answer: Both A and C are rotated versions of the first object!