The two children under the age of 5 whom I see regularly greet me with the same words. Not “Hello” or “Hi there” or “Hey,” but “Matt, can I play with your phone?”
Kids have an incredible natural interest in smartphones and tablets. Pramod Sharma, who is a parent, says they’re sucked into the interactivity and engagement. And, like many parents, he’s concerned about too much screen time.
“When I see my daughter glued to the screen for a long period of time, the disconnect from the real world makes me pretty nervous,” Sharma said. “To me, technology is not doing justice here. Technology should enable a better experience than kids glued to the screen.”
Sharma worked on Google’s book-scanning project, which gave him a window into how physical and digital worlds can combine. He knew he could do something to address his concerns, so he left Google to co-found Tangible Play.
The start-up is launching a crowd-funding campaign Thursday for Osmo, a remarkable gaming device that bridges the digital and real worlds. Tangible Play wants to raise $50,000 for manufacturing costs and plans to ship the device in late summer.
Sharma showed me a demo of Osmo, which includes three games that are played with an iPad but also involve the physical world. In one of them, a child can arrange tangrams into certain shapes on a table. As the design comes together, the iPad recognizes it on screen.
Another Osmo game teaches children to spell. A photo is flashed on the iPad screen, and children place physical letters from the word in front of the iPad. Thanks to a mirror attached to the tablet’s camera, Osmo’s software recognizes the letters that have been placed in front of the screen. Each player uses a different set of colored letters, allowing kids to compete to be the fastest one to spell the word.
Osmo’s third game, called Newton, may allow for the most creativity. The goal is to get balls that drop down the iPad screen to hit certain targets. To do this, any physical object can be placed in front of the iPad camera, and the balls will bounce off it onscreen. It could be a player’s hand, keys or something else.
Sharma stressed the importance of teaching our youngest generation the skills that can’t be replaced in upcoming years. With more jobs being automated, a workforce that isn’t employable is a serious problem. But humans have two big advantages over computers — social intelligence and creative thinking. Both are traits that Sharma thinks Osmo encourages.
The system is being pilot-tested in more than 100 schools around the country. Sharma also envisions offering a version of Osmo that works on Android, but for now he’s focused on building a large community of users for the iPad platform.
It will retail for $99, but a limited supply will be sold for $49.