What Happens at App Camp

… stays at App Camp?  I certainly hope not!  Because I was lucky enough to attend last month’s Dust or Magic Children’s App Design Institute, and the pure magic of this conference needs to be shared.

For the second year in a row, an intimate group interested in children’s apps came together for a three-day event that included presentations from designers, reviewers and other industry experts as well as demos and brainstorm sessions.  There is no way I can summarize this event in one short blog — particularly when much of the magic occurred in fireside, s’more-filled conversations that lasted well into the night.  But in case you didn’t attend, here are just a few key takeaways to ensure that what happened at App Camp doesn’t stay at App Camp.

The Magic

“Why is the touchscreen so magical? Because the finger becomes a magic wand.”
-Claire Green, President, Parents’ Choice Foundation; co-organizer, Sandbox Summit

I’ve got to start this blog by talking about the magic. The apps that are at the same time inspiring the field and inspiring the kids. Without even getting into the multitude of amazing stuff that was shown in demos, sidebar conversations, or square dances (don’t ask), the case studies alone presented enough magic to fill any magician’s hat.  Zinc Roe’s Stella and Sam apps have some of the most beautiful examples of simple instruction I’ve ever seen.  Oceanhouse Media has figured out how to marry good business and good quality with their Dr. Seuss eBooks.  SMULE’s Glee Karaoke enabled people from all over world to form one large choir singing “Lean on Me” to support those hurting in Japan.  Duck Duck Moose gave an advance showing of Musical Me!, and they have once again nailed it with the difficult match between child development and design.  Motion Math and Toontastic are making me think that we should all attend Stanford’s LDT program.  And if you really want your mind blown from a technological standpoint, check out Eric Rosenbaum’s Singing Fingers.

The Business

“Doesn’t it sound funny that $3.99 is at the high end of pricing?”
– Michel Kripalani, President, Oceanhouse Media

The spirit of Dust or Magic lies strongly in creating magic for children; however if the companies creating the magic can’t sustain their work, that magic will never make it into the hands of kids.  The elephant in the room seemed to be the question of how to make money in this space, and an informal poll by Scott Traylor (who, by the way, has posted videos of the event on his YouTube page — props to Scott for his consistent contributions to the field!) revealed that of ~40 iOS app developers in the room, only 10 have brought in money through the App Store and a mere 6 have recouped development costs.

Michel Kripalani talked about what has worked for Oceanhouse Media, licensors of the Dr. Seuss brand, who ship a new product every three weeks.  He emphasized the importance of having a suite of apps, and discussed how cross promotions have helped them get away from the discovery problem on the App Store. Business models need to continue being discussed, and we need to enable development of apps that are both magical and sustainable.

The Kids

” Apple is like a Swiss bank account for Tap Zoo.”
– Warren Buckleitner, Editor, Children’s Technology Review

Warren Buckleitner (the wonderful magician behind Dust or Magic) discussed what happens when good people make bad software in an excellent presentation called “Dust.”  I loved Warren’s ultimate recommendation, which was simply to make something that you would let your own child play with.  While I’m confident that everyone who was at App Camp, along with most of us in the space will follow that advice, unfortunately there are always going to be people who don’t.  The recent Smurfberry debacle highlights the need for children’s protection initiatives around in-app purchases, and thousands of apps are claiming to teach children about anything from arithmetic to astronomy with no standards of educational value to help parents, children and educators discern if the multitude of products in the marketplace live up to their educational claims. With apps like Tap Zoo and Smurf’s Village topping the charts, whether it is some sort of code of ethics, policy work or rating system, I do think there is a need for higher-level industry initiatives aimed at protecting kids as the app market for children continues to explode.

The Story

“Meaningful appearance of characters has been rare, but it’s starting to happen and it’s going to transform mobile.”
– Jesse Schell, CEO & Creative Director, Schell Games

Story and character were overarching themes at last month’s Cooney Center forum, and I was surprised to see these themes highly relevant at App Camp as well.  Jesse Schell, who shared his thoughts on technologies that are shaping the field, kicked off the importance of these elements in his keynote presentation.  Schell described innovations like facial expression tracking, emotion sensing, persistent databases (aka Mario knows me), and natural language understanding, all of which will allow people to better connect with story and character. Schell predicted that natural speech recognition will be the single greatest change in the history of video games, and compared this shift to the transformation from silent to sound in film.  Meaningful integration of story and character could be an influential force in children’s apps, as we all know the power of story and character with young audiences is immeasurable.

The Tips & Tricks

“I wonder what you’d look like with stripes, Fred?”
– Sam of Stella and Sam, via Jason Krogh, Founder/Director, zinc Roe

When you gather many of the greatest children’s app developers in one room, you are sure to pick up a few tips.  The one thing that seemed to come up again and again is the idea that simplicity is key, and it is difficult to achieve.  The above quote is a great example of how zinc Roe’s team put a lot of time into not having any instructions in their Stella and Sam Apps, but rather let the characters and story guide the child on what to do.  Toontastic’s Andy Russel similarly advised developers to get rid of as many UI elements as possible until only the necessities are on screen.  Developers have also found that ensuring there is no way to fail works very well, particularly amongst the younger demographics.  Duck Duck Moose’s Caroline Hu Flexer talked about how they make everything in their apps interactive, and allow children to level up at their own pace.  Finally, touching again on the point of story and character, don’t underestimate the importance of character.  As PBS’s Jennifer Wells acutely said, “Characters can be trusted guides to help kids with concepts they might be struggling with.”

The End

“Child development remains constant even as the context shifts wildly.”
– David Kleeman, President of the American Center for Children and Media

I end this blog with the above quote from David Kleeman, because in a world where we finger paint with sound and our avatars outlive us, it’s a simple point that we sometimes forget.  Kids are still kids, so let’s not forget our role as developers, researchers, reviewers, and parents in presenting them with magic and protecting them from dust.

Hope to see you all at App Camp 2012!



Photos by Warren Buckleitner

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