Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Part 2: Behind the Scenes With 'Bobo'

This is the second part of dotMomming's interview with Juraj Hlavac, the man behind the ground-breaking app Bobo Explores Light. Look for more enriching, educational apps from him and his development studio GameCollage.

dotMomming: You've also produced two other app picture books - The Little Mermaid and The Three Little Pigs - along with some game apps. But currently in the App Store, there are dozens of Little Mermaids and Little Pigs. What about more original stories? Do you see GameCollage adapting existing stories or producing completely original stories?

Juraj Hlavac: I can see GameCollage going both ways. Both The Little Mermaid and The Three Little Pigs were stepping stones in understanding the technology and developing a framework as a basis for future apps. In that same vein, Bobo is a stepping stone to the next thing, whatever that may be.

My personal passion lies in education because I believe that so much more can be accomplished in that space. The problem, up until now, was that technology and education were always somehow incompatible. Either technology was too expensive or too cumbersome to be integrated effectively in the classroom setting. However, that's quickly changing. A teacher can invest into an iPad for only $300 and kids walk around with their parents' old iPhones in their pockets. The proliferation and the portability of these devices means that the classrooms are more ready now than they ever were to experience software that actually makes a difference in not only how kids learn, but how they approach learning.

So, to answer your question, I'm less concerned about whether the next set of stories will be adaptions of existing content or something entirely new, as long as they keep exciting and inspiring kids to read and to learn.

DM: Bobo was a great example of high-minded book creation for kids - packed with information about big science concepts like how light works, how the eye sees, and so much more, it was full of quality learning. But the way kids could interact with the information and mess around with the app tools was what made it remarkable. It represents some of the best of what digital learning can be. So there's a high mark. But on the other side, you're also making games like Pop Fizz Gold that offers "hours of relaxing fun." So what are you guys? High or low digital entertainment?

JH: Indeed, Bobo comes in a wake of other apps of smaller scope, such as the casual game Pop Fizz you mention. However, I see that as less of a conflict and more as evolution. I began GameCollage in the spirit of exploring new technology and understanding what apps are and what they can be. To borrow the analogy I mentioned earlier, they were all stepping stones to the next thing. As I progressed through this journey, I gained some valuable skills on how to write code for the iOS devices as well as inside knowledge on how to harness the power of the app store.

To that effect, all the other apps I've published earlier are not so much incongruent with the current goals of GameCollage as they are a nostalgic testament to the journey I took to get here. Plus they are still fun games that people enjoy, so I keep them current in the store.

DM: What's next?

JH: At this very moment we are finishing up a fairly substantial Bobo update that will make the app harness the new iPad retina display. After that, stay tuned for the next big thing. When the time comes, I'll announce it on Twitter (@GameCollage) as well as on the GameCollage website.  Consider yourself warned.

In all seriousness, this has been a great and extremely rewarding journey for me and I'm excited to keep evolving. With a bit of luck, the hope is to keep bringing more richness and value to the apps available to all kids world-wide that, in their small way, make a difference.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Behind the Scenes With 'Bobo'

When judging the Cybils last year, we fell in love with a little app called Bobo Explores Light, from the developers at GameCollage. Through dazzling animations and fun interactivity, Bobo took readers on an engaging exploration of one of science's major concepts: light. Since that time, the adorable little robot, Bobo, has lingered in our mind. And we've wondered who and what was behind this impressive project. So dotMomming reached out to Juraj Hlavac, the founder of GameCollage and former Microsoft software engineer, to learn more about Bobo.

dotMomming: How did you come up with the idea for Bobo. Is it completely original, or was it a paper book first? What were you hoping to accomplish? Can you speak to the "ah-ha" moment when you first decided to try your hand at an app?

Juraj Hlavac:I grew up with a Czech translation of a book for kids by Joe Kaufman, entitled Why and How, that explained how things worked. The details were simplified, but the concepts were accurate. I loved that book. I remember spending many hours flipping through it examining the insides of airplanes, tracing the force lines of levers and pulleys, and generally getting excited about the science of things. Many years later when the iPad first arrived, it occurred to me that it would be the perfect medium to convey that same set of ideas except in a way that was much more interactive. The levers and pulleys could actually move this time!

I started exploring those concepts with an interactive book I created prior to Bobo. I took the story of The Three Little Pigs and spruced it up with mechanical elements that moved individual pictures around the page. However, you could also active an X-ray mode, that allowed you to see the actual mechanical gizmos underneath.

With Bobo I continued to expand on that concept. However, to make the content more enticing, I thought about introducing a robot to be your guide. The idea was to inspire kids about learning by giving them a companion to befriend that would share their adventure. I ran the idea by my brother who has always been a huge inspiration to me and as soon as I mentioned the robot to him, he blurted out: "Ah...  And his name should be Bobo!" So that's how the robot was born.

The scale of project was a little daunting for a single guy working out of his home office. So I paired with two very talented individuals, illustrator Dean MacAdam and writer Craig Fusco, who helped me bring the app to fruition. It took us seven months of hard work to put all the pieces together, but we were very excited about how the final product turned out.

DM: Bobo was a serious contender for the Cybils Award for best app. What set it apart from the crowd was the incredible use of technology to serve the reader, a child. Did you have young readers in mind as you created the book? Did you build off of familiar approaches with children's books? Or did you scrap everything that came before and look at Bobo as completely original?

JH: The idea behind Bobo was to push across all fronts - technological, visual, and educational.  We weren't chained to existing content that we just needed to adopt into the digital medium, and that gave us a lot of freedom. The iPad offers tremendous advantages over other technologies because of its portability, extreme ease of use, and computational power. As a result, it opens up all sorts of options that allow apps to depart from the traditional approach of "books," especially when it comes to education, and we wanted to explore those possibilities to their fullest.

One of our goals from the start was to engage a wide audience of children. We structured an enormous amount of content in a non-linear fashion that allowed kids to dive into each topic the app discussed at whatever level was appropriate for them. For example, my two-year-old nephew loved to navigate to the disco page and dance along with Bobo without having any real interest in the science behind it. At the same time, older kids have the option to dig deeper into a given topic through a range of supporting articles, narrated slide shows, and some pretty awesome videos whose authors graciously donated their work to the project.

I think at the end, we arrived at a product that begins to explore what iPads could mean for education, although there are still many more avenues to explore in this genre.  And that's what we plan to focus on next.

DM: Who were the players who helped create Bobo? GameCollage is a "small and nimble" company, can you talk about what skills your group brings to the table?

JH: At it's core, GameCollage is a one-man-show, consisting of me and my single laptop. It's actually quite surprising what one can crank out with that little machine. However, for the Bobo Explores Light project, I've partnered with the writer Craig Fusco and illustrator Dean MacAdam as I mentioned earlier. This collaboration freed me up to focus more on the concept design, project development, sound design, and marketing and PR once the app was finished.

I think the No. 1 skill I like to foster in myself as well as in the people who join me is the ability to wear multiple hats at the same time and be willing to dive into disciplines outside of our comfort zones. We never had to outsource any part of the project to third parties and managed to produce all components in-house - from sound design, through video production, to PR and marketing. That flexibility allowed us to operate on a shoestring budget and still manage to turn profit without having to resort to external funding. To me, a functioning company is one that is self-sufficient so rather than making large claims and failing on the promises, my goal was to start small and build from ground up.  So far that has been a successful strategy and I'm excited to continue going down this path.


Saturday, June 30, 2012

E-Book Pricing and the DoJ Collusion Lawsuit

Agency model vs. wholesale model. Price fixing. Amazon. Apple.

There has been a lot of news lately about e-books, and this week saw the announcement of a trial date for the fate of e-book pricing, as the Department of Justice will square off against Apple and two major publishers a year from now, on June 3, 2013. For consumers and writers, it's worth paying attention.

The original DoJ lawsuit had been filed against Apple and five major publishers, alleging a conspiracy of e-book price fixing as they tried to mount a battle against Amazon and what some call its "predatory pricing."

At the heart of the matter is the charge that Apple and the publishers worked together to get the e-book industry to rely on the "agency model" of pricing, and thus raise the price of e-books. This seemed to be their best defense against Amazon, which follows the "wholesale model" that allows it to price e-books far below what publishers recommend.

Also in this arrangement was Apple staking claim to "most favored nation" status, which meant publishers could not offer their e-books cheaper anywhere else on the web than the Apple Store. This move quickly translated to higher e-book prices for Amazon’s Kindle store. Three publishers -- HarperCollins, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster -- have agreed to a settlement that has drawn the ire of many in the industry. But the two others -- Macmillan and Penguin -- are staying with Apple and fighting the suit.

For those wanting to understand this case more fully, MacStories offers a helpful explanation of what's at stake and did a tremendous job breaking down the jargon. And, pointy-headed reader that I am, I found its simple graphics went a long way in defining the terminology:
  • Wholesale model: retailers buy books at a wholesale price and then sell them at a price they determine is best, whether at the publisher's suggested higher retail price or, as Amazon does to promote interest in the Kindle, at a deeply reduced price
  • Agency model: publishers control pricing and simply sell through "agents," retailers like Amazon or Apple, who cannot set a book's cost 
  • And a new one on me, the Most Favored Nation clause, which requires the wholesaler to provide the retailer, in this case Apple, with the best wholesale price and thus protects Apple from having to compete. Through MFN, Apple always has the lowest-possible e-book price available
Whether you see Amazon as an evil behemoth out to undercut any possible profit you could make off your book, or as a savior helping bring digital books to the masses at cheap prices, there is a lot to consider in this case.

This article from PCMag explains the week's developments -- framing what the issues are for both sides as the lawsuit moves to trial. Apple, which had sought an earlier trial date, denies the charges and says the company brought competition to the e-book world where Amazon did not. But says Attorney General Eric Holder in bringing the collusion charges, ". . . we believe that consumers paid millions of dollars more for some of the most popular titles." 

For the long view, check out indie e-book distributor Smashwords, which offers an in-depth look at the case, with both the short- and long-term effects, and what it means for authors (it has published more than 130,000 e-books) in its article written back in March 2012. "Ever since we adopted the agency model," the article states, "I had faith that in a free market ecosystem where the supply of product (e-books) exceeds the demand, that suppliers (authors and publishers) would use price as a competitive tool, and this would naturally lead to lower prices."

And for some interesting perspectives, GalleyCat features strong opinions about Amazon's actions, U.S. News says price fixing could hurt Apple, and the Consumer Federation of America's top spokesman says critics of the DoJ lawsuit "are engaging in a luddite rant against change."

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Print Books Never Lose Battery Life at Bedtime

The  Joan Ganz Cooney Center has come out with some interesting studies about print books and e-books, and their peppy cousin the enhanced e-book. The results, which you can read at Digital Book World, are significant not only for the learning they show among young readers, but also for the perceptions parents have about the way young people read. Look for a complete report on the survey by the end of this summer.

There seems to be a bit of a disconnect.

One study showed that kids, ranging in age from 3 to 6 years, preferred reading an e-book to a paper book. And it looked at their comprehension rates, showing no difference between the paper format and the digital one. This study was small but is one of the first of its kind to attempt to determine if there is a preference or difference in how kids take in stories.

When you add the enhanced e-books like picture book apps into the mix, allowing for more finger swiping and tip tapping, comprehension rates drop, the study shows. Food for thought for teachers incorporating picture book apps into the classroom, but also great fodder for app producers trying to stay true to book apps as learning tools for young readers.

In another Cooney Center study, taking the pulse of 1,200 parents, it might come as no surprise to learn that parents prefer print books over digital when they read with their children. But the interesting tidbit here is that they believe their children do too. (Parents, see above study.)

I can't disagree with the Old Guard in this survey. And though I don't want to be lumped in with any of the hysteria around parents worrying that tablets are turning their readers into zombies, I'll be the first to admit that I still love snuggling up on a pillow with my kids and sharing a paper book. While I am fine with my kids reading a novel or picture book app on the iPad during the day, there is something intrusive about having a screen on at bedtime.

Many of us spend a big part of our day policing screen time and knocking our kids off the electronic toys and out onto the green stuff growing in the yard. So while it's good to see studies that show positives around children's engagement with digital books, it will likely take a while for parents to get behind the notion of a glowing screen on when the stars come out.

What about you? What do your kids prefer? And how do you read to them at bedtime?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Betsy Bird's Top Picture Books Poll and Apps

I love lists. Making them, marking things off of them, threatening to put my children on them. Lists for top movies and songs are always helpful when I'm feeling indecisive about what to play. And lists for books are precious for addled brains like my own when I'm at the library or bookstore and feeling overwhelmed by all my choices.

So when Betsy Bird announced a new poll on her Fuse #8 blog for top picture books and chapter books, I was very excited. It's fun to consider what stories stand the test of time, and what new authors and books are essential to any bookshelf. And for dotMomming, I want to know if the best books for kids are becoming available in digital format.

The current poll repeats the enormous feat Betsy pulled off in 2009. Here are the top 10 picture books that made the list then:
  1. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (1963)
  2. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown (1947) 
  3. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle (1979)
  4. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (1962)
  5. Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems (2003)
  6. Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey (1941)
  7. Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson (1955)
  8. Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans (1939)
  9. Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag (1928)
  10. Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale by Mo Willems (2004)
Way back in 2009, the iPad was only a glimmer in Apple's eye. It wasn't released until April 2010, so the idea of enhanced picture books was still a ways off. But what about now? How many of these top picture books can you download in the App Store today?

Where the Wild Things Are? Nope. And judging by Maurice Sendak's feelings about e-books, it would take a lot of convincing to bring about an app.

Goodnight Moon? What you find in app format is not the picture book. Very Hungry Caterpillar? Here's the first of these top 10 books to appear in the App Store, though it's not the picture book but rather a math game featuring the adorable caterpillar and Eric Carle's lovely fruit. The Snowy Day? Nope.

Mo Willems' Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus arrived in app format in October 2011 as Don't Let the Pigeon Run This App! (Disney, $6.99). Rather than provide the same content as the paper book, Willems' app lets young readers create their own pigeon stories again and again. Willems is clearly committed to traditional reading and ventured into digital books reluctantly, describing e-books in USAToday, "With all their bells and whistles and word jumbles and assorted narrative killers, after we turn them on, they don't need us."

Make Way for Ducklings app? Nope. Harold and the Purple Crayon (Trilogy Studios, $6.99) is available in a lovely app format that made the CYBILS app finalist list this year. Madeline? Nope. Millions of Cats? Nope. Knuffle Bunny? Not yet, but there might be hope.

"I didn't want to be some reactionary luddite," Willems says in the USAToday interview. "I'm not saying everything electronic is evil."

Check out the rules for nominating your picks for the top 100 picture books and chapter books on the Fuse#8 blog and then email your favorites to Betsy Bird at The deadline is 11:59 p.m. Eastern on April 15, 2012.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Auryn's Founder on Storytelling Opportunities

We heard from author-illustrator Sue Shanahan last month about her beautiful new app, Love You to the Moon and Back, from award-winning app producer Auryn. This week dotMomming features Umesh Shukla, founder and CEO of Auryn, to find out more about the app market, picture books, and children's literacy.

Kirkus Reviews calls the Auryn team "some of the best developers in the business." And through collaborations with legendary children's authors like Rosemary Wells, it is establishing itself as a serious player in the highly competitive children's app market. Readers who are not yet familiar with Auryn's books can get up to speed quickly this month as Auryn plans to give away a free picture book app every day in celebration of National Reading Month.

dotMomming: You have come out with some lovely apps based on print picture books, such as Don Freeman's stories (Hattie the Backstage Bat, Inspector Peckit), the Teddy books, and the Miko series. Can you explain how this model – creating enhanced, interactive books out of existing print books – is successful for an app producer?

Umesh Shukla: In any content business, working with an established brand always helps; even more, when a new format like the tablet comes along. We have been fortunate to have worked with numerous established brands. It has mutually benefited both us and these brands. While we get an opportunity to showcase our capabilities with the help of these brands, they get Auryn’s expertise in maintaining their brand value, while transforming their intellectual properties to a new medium.

DM: Do you see Auryn opening the door to original stories from new authors and illustrators? Why or why not?

US: Absolutely. Every new device presents some very unique, device-specific storytelling opportunities, and we are very keen to move in that direction with the right creative partners.

DM: Auryn is one of the first producers out of the starting gate. How has that worked in your favor? Now that the bigger houses such as Scholastic are entering into app-land, what does that mean for smaller independents such as Auryn?

US: It’s still an emerging field. We believe there is plenty of room for players both big and small. Having bigger players enter the field simply establishes the validity of the new format, and helps everyone involved in creating content for that medium.

DM: What type of books do you see Auryn creating  strictly picture books for young readers, or older interactive books for middle-schoolers, too? What do you hope to accomplish as a producer of enhanced books for kids?

US: Currently our focus is in picture books, as they allow us to showcase our patented rendering technology. But we are in the storytelling business and do plan to open ourselves to other genres in coming months/years.

DM: Can you speak to literacy learning? How do you see the uptake of books and learning changing for young readers as more classrooms open up to digital media? And where do picture book apps such as the ones Auryn produces fit in?

US: I am very excited by the emerging opportunities new devices offer in every kind of learning. School bags are going to get much lighter. Now abstract concepts can be presented in so many subtle and interesting ways to help a child grasp them better. The learning possibilities are enormous.

A small example of it would be the inclusion of pronunciation guides in our apps. While the child is reading the story, he or she can learn to relate the sound to the words. I think we are lucky to be working in a medium that is being defined and redefined everyday. We hope to play a big part in shaping its future.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Space Dog's Treasure Island an Adventure

As I read Space Dog Books' Treasure Island app, I kept thinking of one of the many wonderful lines that Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith), utters on Downton Abbey: "Electricity in the kitchen? Whatever for?"

Treasure Island, the Robert Louis Stevenson's classic published in 1883, seems to have done pretty well for itself left all alone in its paper form. And app producers have to tread carefully when enhancing classic books in the public domain -- readers can choose to download the no-frills option for free or pay for the updated one, which in this case retails for $7.99 in the App Store.

So an enhanced Treasure Island for the iPad at first begs the same question, "Whatever for?" Well the answer, simply put, is for the sake of young readers.

Artist Matthew Cruickshank's illustrations are superb and immediately draw readers in with their playful, sly style and vivid colors. They are sophisticated without being adult, yet there is no whiff of kindergarten either. The look and feel of this Treasure Island is solidly for the independent readers.

So why an app and not just a well-illustrated e-book? There are many reasons why this version of Treasure Island is so appealing. The story has obviously stood the test of time, and this abridged version is no exception. But what has changed is the reader.

I am not saying that kids these days must have whistles and bells to hold their attention. And this Treasure Island does not pander to that notion -- there are no games imbedded in the story, no links readers can follow that take them away from the narrative. There are few gimmicks here, and kids expecting to find an escape hatch might be disappointed.

Treasure Island's interactivity is amusing and meant to provide a pause in the 34-chapters of action. And frankly, who wouldn't want to hear a pirate sing, "Fifteen men on a dead man's chest. . ."? A lush illustration accompanies the start of almost every chapter, sometimes providing opportunities for readers to swipe or tap the image to move a character or hear a bit of dialogue, other times just as  animations that beautifully capture the scene. When interacting with the animations, readers will hear sound effects like chirping birds, clip-clopping horse hooves, snarling pirates, and occasional dramatic music. And since this is a book clearly geared for boys, there are burps. Many burps. In glorious variety.

Small illustrations within chapters offer simple interactivity like tilting the iPad and seeing the rum inside a corked bottle slosh around, sliding a key into a lock and clicking it open, and flicking the tiny ship at sea and having it bob in the ocean. And gorgeous full-page animations capture big scenes in clever detail.

Reading is clearly the emphasis with Space Dog's Treasure Island, and while there are no "read-to-me" options as with picture book apps for a younger audience, there are still tools to help navigate the book. A pull-down ribbon lets readers return to the beginning, jump to another chapter, and see how to interact with an animation. And while there is no tool for adjusting type size, I found the text clear and easy to read and no different from a traditional book page.

I don't think young readers are too different from the grownup kind. Sometimes they want to stretch out on the couch with a good book and few distractions. With this digital updating of a wonderful children's classic, Space Dog's gorgeous Treasure Island provides just that.