The world of apps and mobile devices is reshaping toys and education for kids, steering children's media towards a blend of entertainment and education.
The AppBlaster uses an iPhone or iPod Touch to create a virtual shooting gallery, part of a trend in combining interactive media from mobile devices with toys.
While older generations simply had to memorise facts at school, today's children and young adults learn best by playing, often with digital gadgets, according to experts at the Sandbox Summit.
Held at the MIT Media Lab, the conference brings together educators and technologists seeking better ways to reach Generations Y and Z — groups ranging from toddlers to 20-somethings — and equip them with skills for the digital lifestyle of the 21st century. In additional to making compelling online games and educational content, they are also trying to design toys that bridge offline play with online apps.
New technology, particularly multi-touch tablets, has brought interactive media and games to infants barely able to sit up by themselves. Also, today's children and young adults have different expectations from their toys and media, speakers said. These digital natives expect to share information on social media, collaborate and create their own content.
These technology and demographic changes mean that interactive media and educational toys need to be designed with the idea of "playful learning", or using technology to combine entertainment and educational content, speakers said.
"Kids' media is in need of disruption," said Rex Ishibashi, the CEO of Calloway Digital Arts, and a gaming industry veteran. "The 1980s vision around immersive gaming has played out in spades with Xbox and other things, but kids' media has not kept up."
Calloway Digital Arts makes apps for Apple's iOS device, which are digital storybooks that include games designed for children's development. Its Thomas the Tank Engine stories, for example, have puzzles and colouring ebooks.
Having devices with an intuitive multi-touch interface, such as the iPad or smartphones, opens up many more possibilities than were possible with a PC, since children have a far harder time learning how to use a computer mouse, Ishibashi said. The rest of the technology ecosystem, including low-cost content development and ubiquitous wireless networking, is now in place, and points to rapid change in children's media and education.
In addition to developing apps, game and toy developers are seeking to link the physical and online worlds. The Moshi Monsters games, for example, has a website where kids can go online, create worlds for their monsters and have friends. Other companies are starting to experiment with augmented reality, where mobile devices complement toys.
Life of George is a game where a person makes Lego creations in conjunction with an iPhone or iPod Touch, racing the clock to create something, uploading photos of it and making their own models. Another toy is AppBlaster, a toy gun that can hold an iPhone or iPod Touch so players can shoot at vertical targets.
Microsoft, meanwhile, is seeking to use the Xbox 360 Kinect gesture interface to change how educational television is watched. The company last year introduced two games, where children alternate between watching a show, such as Sesame Street or a National Geographic nature show, and playing games, where they can interact with characters on-screen. Using the Kinect gesture interface gets them more actively engaged than just watching, said Alex Games, education design director at Microsoft.
The notion of creative play is also built in to its Kodu project from Microsoft Research, which seeks to teach kids software programming skills.
Bringing educational content to existing products, such as smartphones and gaming consoles, is important, because those are the tools that children and young adults use every day, either in or outside of school. A survey by research company Intelligence Group found that 80 per cent of young adults sleep with their smartphones next to them.
FlickerLab gave a demonstration of FlickerStudio, a broadcast-quality video programming software application aimed at children.
(Credit: Martin LaMonica/CNET)
But simply putting educational material, such as a textbook or maths problems, onto digital devices isn't enough. Instead, there needs to be both elements of play and collaboration, said Patty Chang, a co-founder of Scoot&Doodle, an online whiteboard where people can play games or draw from multiple computers.
"We're trying to help teach new skills, like collaboration and team work, and how to innovate," said Chang. "That can be a tougher sell, because it's less prescriptive, which is what parents are used to."
Learning through games or interactive media should improve children's problem-solving skills, which is a break from today's educational system of transferring information from teachers to students, said Microsoft's Games. The hope is that new experiences through interactive games with the Kinect gesture interface can enhance family interactions.
"At the end of the day, all learning will become informal," Microsoft's Games said. "We're transforming the living room and the last bastion of family interaction, which is the TV, into a real, interactive experience."