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.”
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!).
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.