Jeff Gelles: Interactive children's books for the iPad generation

Kartik Hosanagar and his wife, Prasanna Krishnan, watch their son, Aarav Hosanagar, play with their new "ZooPAL - A Gift" on an iPad. They envision it as the first in a series of interactive book/games.
Kartik Hosanagar and his wife, Prasanna Krishnan, watch their son, Aarav Hosanagar, play with their new "ZooPAL - A Gift" on an iPad. They envision it as the first in a series of interactive book/games. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 26, 2013

Kartik Hosanagar and Prasanna Krishnan have the earmarks of a power couple.

At 36, Hosanagar is a professor at Penn's Wharton School, cofounder of Yodle Inc., an online marketer, and an angel investor in a dozen other start-ups. Krishnan, 34, has done stints in tech development at Comcast, venture investing in Silicon Valley, and management at Jetsetter, a travel website.

But you might say that a third family member - their 21/2-year-old son, Aarav - is at least as important to Mom and Dad's latest venture: SmartyPAL, envisioned as a series of interactive children's books designed for the iPad generation.

Last week's outage affecting Apple developers has delayed the launch of the first of their book-game hybrids. But it hasn't slowed their plans, Hosanagar and Krishnan told me Wednesday. The first title, ZooPAL - A Gift, will be available as soon as Apple clears it, to be followed in the fall by ZooPAL - A New Zoo. PAL stands for play, apply, and learn, themes for the series.

ZooPAL - A Gift is a simple story, centering on a mystery package that shows up one day at the zoo. What makes it more engaging is that it's actually not a single story, but an algorithmically driven program that can take more than a thousand different paths depending on how the child responds at each turn of the tale.

Use the ladder or the trampoline to reach into the tree? The boat or the bridge to reach the package floating in a pond?

Eventually, the books will be personalizable by loading a child's face onto a character's, as Aarav's is in the sample. That's fitting, since Aarav also stars in the story behind SmartyPAL, which began on a flight to India.

Aarav was only 1 when he took his first trip to his parents' birthplace, but he'd already been drawn to the couple's iPads - so engaged that they decided to buy him his own tablet for the long journey. He especially liked storybook apps - no surprise, since reading with his parents is a favorite activity.

But as Aarav played, his parents became increasingly critical of what the App Store had for children. And that triggered one of their own favorite activities: thinking about how they could do better.

I should note right here that Krishnan and Hosanagar recognize the importance of limiting "screen time," today's catchall for time in front of a TV, computer, or mobile device.

They share the nuanced view of Temple University developmental psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, one of two academics who helped in SmartyPAL's own developmental phase.

"It's a funny balance that we all need to worry about," says Hirsh-Pasek, who says studies show children 8 and older averaging an astounding eight hours a day staring at a screen, and younger children about half that.

Hirsh-Pasek says evidence is clear that young children learn "virtually nothing" from passive screen time, and learn best when they interact with people.

"We learn in the social soup - that's what we are," she says.

But what about human-machine interaction? That's the multibillion-dollar question underlying SmartyPAL and a huge and growing segment of the app market. One measure: Hosanagar says parents with tablets download an average of 27 apps per year for their children.

Hirsh-Pasek says early evidence, including studies of how children react to teaching via Skype, is intriguing.

"We're just starting to learn about robot teachers, and they're actually sort of effective," she says. "The interaction, that dance between parent and child and teacher and child, is critically important."

With SmartyPAL's interactive books, the permutations are dynamic, and adjust to a child's starting level and progress.

"The whole idea that there's no one answer to a problem," says Hosanagar.

There's no single answer either on how to maximize technology's value for a child's development and education. But with Aarav's help, SmartyPAL may be on the right path.


Contact Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776, jgelles@phillynews.com, or @jeffgelles on Twitter. Read his blog at www.inquirer.com/consumer.

For more information about SmartyPAL and its book-game hybrids, go to www.smartypal.com.

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