Category Archives: Ariella’s Blog Posts

Kody Kapow – 3 Lessons Learned

In my last blog, I wrote about Legacy’s design process and inspirations for creating a new cooperative mobile game for kids ages 4-7, based on the animated series, Kody Kapow, on the Sprout daily preschool programming block on Universal Kids. Our game, Kody Kapow Village Defender, is now available for free on iOS and Android.

How did the actual game development go and what did we learn?

Lesson #1. Assemble the Best Team. Legacy’s model, for many years, was to acquire a license and design the basic game concept, then hand the actual development process off to partners, usually far, far away. This worked great for well-established game genres, like match-3 and hidden object, and with standardized software libraries and engines. It didn’t work as well when we attempted to create an app for which there were few if any design precedents. The model really fell apart when we added brand new technologies like computer vision to the mix. It was hard if not impossible to ship yet-to-be released hardware out of the country as well as maintain the quick iterative dev cycles needed with constantly changing software and big time zone differences.

As a result, a few years ago when Legacy’s business became increasingly focused on AR and computer vision, we began to work exclusively with one of the largest independent game companies in Massachusetts, HitPoint Studios, headed by Paul Hake. The partnership has resulted in four games and counting. HitPoint’s combination of technical brilliance (they never say never), art versatility, and brilliant UI/UX has been the perfect addition to Legacy’s design and child development acumen. And possibly the most important member of the team, Andrew Duncan, functioned as the main game designer as well as producer of Kody Kapow. Virtually every good idea and magical moment in the game came from Andrew.

In addition to HitPoint and Legacy, the Digital Manager on the Universal Kids side couldn’t have been better, or easier, to work with.  Caroline Smigocki led the development effort for Sprout with humor, patience, and competence. We got every resource we needed, and she navigated approvals among the many stakeholders with amazing professionalism and speed.

Lesson #2. Iterate, iterate, iterate.

I’m still rather amazed at how much testing and subsequent revisions we did. Two of the minigames were straightforward and relied on well-known gameplay mechanics. Nonetheless, when we tested with kids in our age range, 4-7, we couldn’t find the right balance between engaging challenge and frustrating failure.

So what did we do?  Call the game doctor, that’s what! Mark Schlichting wrote the book, Understanding Kids, Play, and Interactive Design, which is the best book written on the subject, in my opinion. Mark agreed to consult on Kody’s overall game design, but it was his advice on the minigames specifically that turned out to be critical. He showed us how to break down the levels of difficulty into bite-size pieces, with careful scaffolding between levels. The children quickly learned how to play each minigame because of the onboarding and contextual help. As a result, there are no separate tutorials or endless voice-overs, despite the different types of gameplay introduced.

Lesson #3. Getting featured.

One would hope that creating a great game would be enough to get featured in Google Play and iTunes, but as any game developer can tell you, it is a necessary but not sufficient ingredient. We dutifully submitted our game to both stores, and went through the seemingly endless process of making the changes requested of us…this after we thought we were done! All of Google’s suggestions were reasonable and made the game work better on Android phones, e.g., insert the camera access request so it comes up only when needed, not at the beginning of the app. Check. The Android back button must have the same functionality as the back button in the game. Check. And lots of suggestions about how the pause button should function.

We believe that the feature opportunity with Apple, on the other hand, is tied to the iPhone 8 launch and ARKit. Given our previous experience with ARKit and Tango (3 apps and counting), we were able to quickly turn Mei’s mini-game into an ARKit experience. What fun, capturing 3D lanterns in your living room!

So will Kody Kapow Village Defender get featured by Apple or Google? The jury is still out, but it’s looking good!

Kody Kapow Village Defender is now live on Google Play and iTunes, for FREE. Try it out, with your favorite kid. Kody was a labor of love for us; we sure hope you enjoy it!

Kody Kapow – Game Design Challenges and Inspirations

We love design challenges, but this was ridiculous. A children’s TV producer came to us about nine months ago and said, “I need a game that’s about teamwork and mindfulness, preferably both single player and multiplayer, for ages 4-7.” Sounds pretty daunting, doesn’t it? I couldn’t think of another cooperative digital game for kids that I really liked…plus the age range and COPPA laws further constrain the possibilities. Luckily, my colleagues at Legacy Games and I loved the TV show themes and characters and, together with our development partners at HitPoint Studios, embarked on a grand design challenge to create the game, Kody Kapow Village Defender.

Kody Kapow is a new original animated series for kids on Sprout, the daily programming block for pre-schoolers on Universal Kids. It features three adorable main characters – Kody, Mei, and Goji – as well as a dastardly villain, Mogo Monkey No-Go. Master Li, Kody’s grandfather, is on hand to teach the kids about how to use their superhero powers to help the villagers. There was a lot of great material to work with, including gorgeous 3D assets, witty voice overs, and engaging writing and storytelling, but what kind of gameplay would support the show’s heartwarming values?

DECISION #1. We first tried to tackle the design goal of creating a game that plays as well for one child as for three. In order to avoid complicating the game set up, and potentially raising COPPA compliance issues, we choose to focus on a pass and play, turn-taking style of multiplayer experience that would play the same regardless of the number of kids.  Check.

DECISION #2. Next, we wanted to tackle the problem of how to encourage kids to play together cooperatively, especially problematic if they are at different experience and maturity levels. We had to come up with a gameplay mechanic in which each’s child’s contributions could potentially help all the players win, or alternatively, all the players lose. Regardless, the players were in it together.

It turns out that physical board games provide some of the best examples of cooperative gameplay. (Cooperative games like Pandemic, Elder Sign: Omens, and Dead of Winter are popular and well-known to adult board gamers.) To our delight, we discovered Peaceable Kingdom’s popular cooperative board games, like Hoot Owl Hoot, for young children. Its basic premise is that game players must move all the baby owls along a colored coded track back to the nest BEFORE the sun rises (on a separate track). Game players work together to try and optimize their moves.

We borrowed the idea of two separate, color-coded game tracks, one for the protagonists in the story (Kody and friends) and one for the antagonist (Mogo Monkey No-Go). The game player has to figure out the optimum moves for each of the heroes to make, in order to get everyone to the Village before Mogo arrives. That involves problem-solving and strategic thinking, another one of our mandates from Universal Kids.

DECISION #3. We had a solid game concept, but now wanted to add some action elements and a light “retention loop” to keep the player engaged and coming back. Andrew Duncan, our Creative Director, designed fun mini games for each of the three main characters, uniquely suited to their personalities – one endless runner, one arcade action, and one Augmented Reality discovery game. The games become available when you choose to move a character to a specially marked tile. The more mini games the child plays successfully, the more lanterns they will collect. At the conclusion of the game, if the players beat Mogo to the Village, total lanterns are counted and high scores recorded.

Add to the mix a secret passage way and some funny antics from Mogo and his henchmen, and our design work was finished.

Or was it? Next up, how did the actual development proceed?  Stay tuned…

Kody Kapow Village Defender is available on Android and soon to be on iOS.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Have you ever played Phone Stack at dinner? Everyone places their smartphones in a pile in the middle of the table. The goal is to see who can last longer without reaching for their device. It is ridiculously hard, even though the loser usually ends up paying for the entire meal!

What if the mere visual presence of your phone reduces your cognitive abilities? In a recent study, “Brain Drain,” researchers have found evidence that phone addiction reduces our ability to perform mental tasks such as solving math problems and remembering letter sequences. What is surprising is that this finding occurs whether or not the phone is placed with the screen down, turned off and/or silenced. In other words, our thinking is negatively impacted by our device, whether or not we are directly interacting with it.

I believe it. We have limited cognitive capacity, and when we see our phone, scarce attentional resources are diverted from the task at hand. We are reminded about all the things we can do with our phone, messages waiting for us, our Facebook feed, and more. The only time the subjects in the study could effectively focus was when their phone was out of the room and out of sight.

I have one caveat. It’s worth noting that in this study, the effect sizes are small, barely significant. When you look more closely at the data, it seems to be driven largely by a small subset of people who are VERY ATTACHED to their phones.  Because of the important implications of this study, I hope others attempt to replicate the results and also compare to other forms of distraction, e.g., TV.

What are some implications of our constantly distracted state? Researchers have shown that when we are in this distracted state of mind, the increased cognitive load causes us to rely less on analytic and deliberative thinking, and more on intuitive, “emotional” approaches to decision-making. Advertisers and others who want us to buy something (whether products or ideology) already understand this and exploit it for their purposes.

So do yourself a favor this summer, go smell the roses, and ditch your phone for a while.

We all understand the joys of our always-wired world – the connections, the validations, the laughs…the info…But we are only beginning to get our minds around the costs.
-Andrew Sullivan (2016)

What I Did on My Summer Vacation – Five AR Use Cases for the Traveler

I just returned from a dreamy Mediterranean vacation, full of ancient Greek ruins, delicious food, and beautiful scenery. But as a newbie to archeology, appreciating 2500-year-old temples that look like rubble can be daunting. We used all the classic approaches of tourists – professional guides, self-guided audio tours, and read as much in-situ information as we could find. But by the time we reached the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, Western Sicily, my sun-drenched brain realized that there had to be a better way to help visitors understand and appreciate the wonders of ancient Greece.

Augmented Reality, either mobile or wearable, offers a great way to educate tourists about ancient ruins and artifacts around the Mediterranean.  Here are five ideas of how AR could help future vacationers playing Indiana Jones in Greece and Sicily.

  1. What visitor is going to read detailed informational signs like these? There is way too much text, and none of it personalized to my interests. While it’s nice that it is translated to English,  what about all the other visitors from around the world?

Alternatively, with AR, I could direct my own experience, by choosing where to focus my eyes or point my mobile device. I could choose to look at the top pediment of the temple, now sadly missing the “marbles” stolen by some random British sailor, and see how it used to look in all its glory.

  1. It’s an even worse problem when there is no signage at all. Most of the time, I was clueless about what I was looking at. The Greeks built a wall that stretched for 15 km to defend Agrigento from the Carthaginians. (BTW, Mr. President, it didn’t work.) But I couldn’t understand why the wall had so many holes carved into it.  With my AR device, I could have pointed at one of the holes to find out that the wall did double duty as a gravesite.

  1. Since I am not an art history scholar and have never been to Greece or Sicily before, I lack much of the background that makes an experience like this truly meaningful. I wanted to see what the ruins looked like when first built, without the missing columns and roof, and to scale. Did you know that ancient Greek buildings were beautifully painted and often decorated with precious metals and jewels? Many of the temples were erected in thriving cities of 100,000 people or more.  An AR app could show the buildings in their full glory and geographic context.

  1. The ancient temples at Agrigento were spread out over a very long and hot three miles. Good luck with trying to find a bathroom or somewhere to buy water. We didn’t have a map with us because they ran out of English versions. AR mapping would have solved our navigation problems neatly.

  1. It’s almost impossible to make a tour of Greek ruins and marble statues of gods interesting to kids. The addition of AR, however, allows for simple games that engage them in a meaningful and memorable way. For example, there was a wonderful garden at Agrigento that hosted many native, but unlabeled, fruit trees. How fun it would be to create a treasure hunt style game, where kids are rewarded for looking up into the correct tree branches with their AR camera and finding ripe fruit, regardless of the season. Do you know what fruit is pictured below? Pistachios!

One of the primary goals of art appreciation is to encourage the viewer to look more closely, and examine the art for patterns and similarities to other objects. Sicily hosts some of the finest Roman mosaics and frescoes in the world, but often there are large sections missing from a pictorial scene or abstract pattern. Why not show a section of the tile, and then ask the student to figure out where to insert it? Like a jigsaw puzzle, when all the pieces have been correctly placed using their AR camera or glasses, the famous blue monkey fresco, painted more than 3000 years ago, appears in all its original glory.

Not to pick on Greece and Sicily, because many of these same ideas can be applied to other tourist sites and museum exhibitions. Plus, think how useful an AR content management system (CMS) that is GPS aware would be to museum personnel. Experts could add and update the information themselves, controlling what text, VO, and images appear when the user points to or focuses at a particular location with their AR device.  Providing in-context and personalized information, that directly relates to where we are in physical space, is a potentially very powerful tool.

And so much fun!



3 Things To Read if You Develop Apps for Kids

I love to read anything and everything. When I can tear myself away from books like Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go (see above), I slog through piles of email newsletters, blog posts, books, podcasts. What follows are three things I’ve read recently that are perfect for developers of children’s apps, written by people I admire.

Shazia Makhdumi runs the family section of the Google Play store. She and her talented team get to see just about every kids’ app made and stay on top of all the latest trends. Given the current “gold rush” of developers submitting thousands of new AR/VR apps, Shazia is trying to figure out what quality standards are needed in this brave new world, as well as “best practices” for developers.

Shazia recently penned an article, “Inspiring Learning and Creativity with VR,” in which she described the unique features of Virtual Reality that make it particularly impactful for kids: presence, empathy, immersion, agency. Shazia goes on to provide helpful suggestions to developers, with examples, for building an impactful and positive VR experience for kids.

I believe that parents should proceed cautiously when exposing young children to Virtual Reality, making sure that gameplay periods are short. And I worry about kids and teens being exposed to hyper-realistic and immersive first person shooters…you know it’s going to happen once the hardware is in the home. Finally, the jury is out regarding the impact of current technology on the physiology of developing eyes.  It’s all so new. But one thing is inarguable. Kids love, love, love the technology. Parents will soon be faced with decisions about how much and which VR experiences they want for their children. I hope developers are up to the challenge as outlined by Shazia.

Warren Buckleitner is the man I hope most parents and teachers will turn to with their questions about new technologies. He is the editor of the best (in my humble opinion) review source for apps, Children’s Technology Review. If you make apps for kids, you need to subscribe to this service, now. The database of reviews goes back to 1993, and has recently become much easier to navigate and use; it’s the perfect resource for compiling those dreaded competitive product analyses.  Legacy’s games haven’t always received the review scores that I think they should, but even so, Warren is unfailingly warm and generous with his feedback and very consistent in the way he looks at products. (Hint: Immerse yourself in constructivism theory about how children learn and make your interactive designs open-ended whenever possible.)

In addition to running an app review service as well as one of the most prestigious conferences, Dust or Magic, Warren also teaches a college class in child development and app design. Called The Interactive Designer’s Cookbook, Warren and his students have summarized a variety of psychological theories and their relevance to app design, and posted the results online. It is a delightful read, especially rich on Piagetian and humanist influences.

My final reading recommendation is The Smarter Screen. Let’s get the advertisement out of the way first. The author of the book is the behavioral economist from UCLA, Shlomo Benartzi and my son, Jonah Lehrer, a science writer.

I love the book. It’s an easy read, chock full of great suggestions about how to be more effective when creating digital content. The basic premise is that we process information on screens faster, and not necessarily better. Screens make us more impulsive, reactive and careless, more prone to rely on first impressions. We tend to be driven more by emotions and instinct, rather than be reflective and analytical. As a result, we remember screen based content less well. There are ways around all of this, of course, with huge implications for designers.

What does this have to do with children? First, how do we slow down information processing on a screen, so that children are able to glean the content that we want to convey? Second, attention is everyone’s most valuable resource in a digital world.  Children have a more limited short-term memory and can easily become overwhelmed with too much screen content, suffering cognitive overload. How do we design clean screens with limited options, so it’s obvious where your eyes should go?  You’ll have to read The Smarter Screen to find out!

What are you reading these days and how does it influence your thinking about software design?

Will AR Help Bridge the Gap in Spatial Intelligence?

Why should we care about spatial skills, i.e., the ability to visualize shapes in our “mind’s eye”? Here are a couple of relevant facts:

  • Spatial intelligence is associated with higher performance in STEM subjects, especially math.
  • Boys typically outperform girls on tests of mental rotation included in most IQ tests.
  • There is evidence that early spatial ability predicts a young child’s reading skills.

Above is a classic rotation test, one measure of spatial intelligence. Are the two shapes different, or just oriented differently? If you felt smoke coming out of your ears trying to figure it out, all is not lost. People can enhance their spatial skills, sometimes dramatically, through experience and training with 3D objects.

  • Physically manipulating 3D objects in structured block play, e.g., building a vehicle from Legos, is associated with increased spatial intelligence.
  • Playing certain 3D 1st person shooter video games has been shown to improve spatial skills.

It was the last finding, with digital 3D characters and objects that are displayed on a 2D screen, that really piqued my interest. If we can improve spatial skills when using a 2D interface, how much more powerful might the effect be if the 3D objects are actually displayed in 3D, as in augmented and virtual reality?

We are just starting to see some research on this, so far coming from industry rather than academia… so let’s be a bit skeptical. Nonetheless, this blog post last year from Meta posits that providing IKEA furniture Instructions in 3D Augmented Reality results in faster assembly than the standard 2D print instructions.  As a cognitive psychologist, their reasoning for why this is true sounds plausible to me, i.e., cognitive overload, memory difficulties, perceptual inefficiencies.

Let’s take that last point and dig deeper. I think that the average Lego instructions are a marvel of design; their traditional 2D print approach has been honed over many years and millions of kids. Think about the advanced cognitive processes one goes through to successfully build a relatively simple Lego Friends project, pictured above.

  1. Learn to follow step by step/page by page/number by number instructions, with each incremental step building on what came before.
  2. Match the individual pieces pictured at the top of the page with similarly shaped and colored objects contained in the box. Find the correct number of each shape.
  3. Place each object in the correct location; this is often a multi-step process and requires that you rotate the piece so that it lines up in the correct orientation.
  4. If you reach a point where you can no longer carry out the instructions, you have to backtrack through the pages, deconstructing your model and learning where you deviated from the instructions.

How could Augmented Reality improve this process? The most obvious answer is to help pinpoint mistakes in real time, which otherwise can be a painful and lengthy process. Assuming your device knew what the model was supposed to look like at every stage, it could quickly pinpoint what piece was incorrectly placed using AR, showing it to you via a HUD-like interface. This process could also be used to double check your Lego creation at every stage, so you don’t end up having to disassemble it later.

More importantly, figuring out which piece goes where is the chief difficulty for most kids. This definitely requires the ability to look at a shape and rotate it (either physically or in your head or both) to see how and where it fits in the larger object. What if the child could view and rotate an AR version of the object as it appears at every stage, thus making it easier to see the correct placement? This would certainly improve “perceptual inefficiencies,” by reducing the need to convert the image from 2D to 3D and back again.

Spatial intelligence is related to math and science competency, not to mention directly tied to many different jobs in the workplace. Learning how to mentally rotate shapes to get to a particular solution is now recognized as a key underpinning of cognitive function. Whether we simply spend more time with our children building with blocks, or employ Augmented Reality to turn traditional 2D printed instructions into 3D visualizations, everyone will benefit.

A New Legacy

Have you visited lately? You will notice many changes! Gone are our 200+ downloadable games, retail bundles, Facebook integration, etc.

While bittersweet to take down all of the PC games that Legacy has created over the past five years, including my personal favorites Murder, She Wrote and Criminal Minds, it was time. It’s not a secret that downloadable hidden object games are no longer in vogue. What was once a booming business is no longer viable. Trends come and go rather quickly in the video game industry, and you either “pivot” or die.

So…we embarked on a rebranding of Legacy a few months ago, to more accurately represent our current business focus.

The “new and improved” Legacy Games website reflects our passion for invention, human-centered design, and product solutions that both exploit and promote new technologies. Our Crayola Color Blaster augmented reality game has been a magical project for us, one that’s opened many doors in terms of new business opportunities. Building on that experience, we are now busily creating new AR/Tango apps as well as an audio-only game utilizing Amazon’s Echo.

And while we no longer offer PC games on our website, you can still find retail boxes with Legacy’s hidden object games at Walmart stores. See below for the latest disc compilations hitting retail shelves this week.

So not everything is new! Check out Legacy Games if you get a chance, and let me know what you think!

More Virtual Creatures to Chase and Be Chased!

 Today, Legacy is announcing an updated version of its unique augmented reality game, Crayola Color Blaster. A new story and content pack, complete with dragons, fairies, ogres, hydras, gnomes, will be joining the original zombie color crunchers. And by popular demand, an arcade mode has been added that requires less walking around, thus making it easier to play in a small space.

– Run from cartoony creatures as they follow you, then paint them with your Crayola Color Blaster!

– Get up close and personal with life-sized zombies, dragons, fairies, ogres, hydras, gnomes, and more!

– Defeat the wacky, rhyming Professor before he steals all the color from the world!

– Face endless waves of fantastic creatures in Arcade Mode and beat the high score!

– Tango’s world-sensing technology scans your environment and transforms it with virtual flowers, rocks, treasure chests, and more!


The Definitive Podcast…about me

I love talking about myself but honestly, this recent interview with friend and fellow developer, Chris Natsuume,  is so long that I wasn’t even sure my family would listen to it. (My part starts about 1/3 of the way into the podcast.)

However, if you have ANY questions about the numerous zigs and zags it takes to run a small business, you may find it interesting.  There is a lot of ground to cover. I’ve founded three small software companies and developed product on technology platforms ranging from Apple II and PC MSDOS to Android-Tango and Amazon Echo.

A couple of highlights from the podcast:

  • I went to graduate school when Marshall McLuhan was all the rage. My dissertation, about how we process information differently depending on the medium, is still very relevant. Turns out the results of that study, especially how we understand and remember audio-only content, is informing our design of stories and games for voice assistants like Alexa and Siri.
  • Naturally Chris wanted to know about my biggest failure. That’s easy. It’s was during the Great Recession of 2009. I was caught completely flatfooted by the free falling economy. The bank called in the company credit line, and it was only with a large personal cash infusion (basically our retirement savings), that we were able to save the company.  That is not something I recommend doing, by the way, but luckily it worked out…by the skin of our teeth!
  • And everyone always wants to know what it was like to work with Google on their new Augmented Reality Tango platform. I talk about the process and resulting product, Crayola Color Blaster. (We are launching a new version of the game next week!)
  • Finally, Chris is a dad and asked about what it was like to raise kids 30 years ago compared to today and how the ubiquity of screens impact their relationship to technology. Good discussion about kids and new technology.

So hopefully there might be a few nuggets in there, if you have the time to listen. Thanks, Chris, for your generous spirit and lovely comments. Please enjoy!

P.S. My son, Eli, whom I mention in the podcast…the one who watched too much TV and became a TV executive? He actually did listen to the podcast and had one comment…”I’m not 40 yet!” I’m correcting the record here. He’s actually 39.


The Evolution of Play in a Virtual World

I am speaking about “The Evolution of Play in a Virtual World” on Tuesday, at Kidscreen. I will be comparing play patterns using traditional toys and games, mobile games and AR/VR games. My basic premise is that AR/VR has some important advantages over previous generations of digital games and also includes some of the unique features that make traditional games so compelling.

Not to give away my entire talk, but here are some of the benefits of Virtual Play that I will be discussing:

  1. You can physically interact with realistic 3D characters, chasing them, etc.
  2. In Augmented Reality, the real world environment becomes part of the game.
  3. The types of interfaces available for interacting with the game tend to be direct and impactful, including touch, voice, and your whole body.
  4. It promotes a sense of presence as you move beyond 2D screens to 3D virtual worlds.
  5. Social interaction and sharing become possible in a realistic 3D space.
  6. Physical movement is an essential part of the game…no more couch potatoes!

Of course, so much has to do with how well a toy or game is designed, regardless of whether it is digital or physical in nature. Developmental psychologists value open-ended children’s products, so that the way they are used is limited only by the child’s imagination.  They value toys and games that engage a child’s interest and curiosity, without distracting them with an over abundance of bells and whistles. And they value products that have repeat playability, with sufficient variability and complexity to explore over time.

Girl playing with Playdough

My mantra as a parent was always the word “balance.” I wanted our four children to experience content on every available platform, because I felt that learning how to “decode” the medium was an important life skill.  It made no sense to me to take away TV or computer time; I simply limited it to 60 minutes a day. The key was finding content that enriched their minds, engaged their hearts, and promoted the values that were important to me.  Those kinds of kids’ toys and games you can find in every format, including new technologies.