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.