App Camping

For the second year in a row, I packed my necessities and headed into the wilderness for the Canadian May long weekend.

OK … well by necessities, I mean my iPad, and by the wilderness, I mean the stunning Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, California.  Yup, that’s right, another App Camp has come and gone.

When I get back from App Camp, the first response I usually get from people is usually “That’s awesome!”  And then they follow with, “What’s an App Camp?”  The positive connotation that the name of this unique conference conjures is probably pretty accurate.  This is an extremely casual (hoodies encouraged), small (limited to 100 seats) conference for developers and others in the children’s app space to brainstorm about the potential of children’s interactive media.

Probably the most unique thing about App Camp is the open nature in which developers are encouraged to share what they are working on, and in many cases even open themselves up to reviews and critiques from the audience.  It was amazing to see both leading and new developers being extremely candid in sharing their ingredients for success and lessons learned. But who says developers get to have all the fun?  I had the chance to sit on the State of the App panel, as well as share our latest research results in what was definitely my most fun presentation yet.

As I said in my blog about last year’s event, 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 weren’t lucky enough to attend, here are just a few key themes that seemed to thread throughout the conference, and are sure to continue shaping the year ahead in the world of kids and apps.

The Kids App Space is Big Business

Probably the greatest change in the past year has been a significant shift in the amount of investment and capital flowing into the space. Large companies, heavily funded ventures, and major kids brands are starting to play seriously in this market. This is a good thing, but also presents a challenge. The bar has been raised in terms of quality and innovation, but there is a lot more noise.  Gone are the days where you can be a tiny shop that solely focuses on product. Successful Toca Boca talked about their version of the 80/20 rule, in which they estimate 20% of work before launch and the remaining 80% after — both in terms of development or marketing.  This is a smart way to think about it, and probably fairly different from the approach most developers take.

Discovery in a Noisy Market

Discovery is fundamentally important, and the most effective methods of being found—by being charted or featured—are somewhat out of the developer’s control.  As a number of the leading developers noted, getting featured by Apple is a bonus, not a strategy.  There is still a lot of confusion amongst parents around discovery and selection of apps, and many seem to experience what has been called ‘app overload’.  Word of mouth, general media, reviews and App Store rankings are all extremely important, and developers need to know how to place their content in a noisy market. Numerous parties are working on this issue, and systems that help with curation and filtering would be a huge asset to everyone.

Intergenerational Interaction

I spent the week before App Camp at Toronto’s InPlay, and was pleasantly surprised to see a focus on parents and children interacting together around digital media.  Sure enough, this theme seemed to emerge at App Camp as well, making me think that people are finally starting to think very seriously about how we can use these new media experiences to bring people together.  This is one of our core focuses here at the Cooney Center, which lies strongly in our roots at Sesame Workshop.  In the 1980s, communications researchers discovered that children whose parents talked aboutSesame Street as they watched learned more from the show.  On the opening night of App Camp, Barbara Chamberlin posed the question, “How do we encourage dialogue between parents and kids?” as one of three grand challenges in app design.  I strongly encourage all developers to think about this, and be sure to check out our New Coviewing report for some ideas.

The School Market

Because I work for an organization that focuses on education, I was excited that the topic of the school market emerged as a theme throughout the conference.  As Lorraine Akemann of Moms with Apps pointed out, “When a child’s teacher comes to a parent and says, ‘This app could help your child with this problem they are having’ — that is going to be a major shift.”  E-book leader Ocean House Media has seen a huge boost this year from the school market, and agreed that while the school market may be a difficult place to focus your entire business on at this point, they view it as an important ancillary.

The Apps

Theo Gray of Touch Press gave an inspiring presentation about the magic that goes into a truly wonderful App.  He reminded us that “A good programmer is every bit a genius and an artist as a good illustrator or author.” Seeing some amazing stuff at this year’s App Camp drove that point home.

And the best part about App Camp is that instead of leaving with bug bites and a sunburn, you leave with a must-download list.  Here is my top 10 list… enjoy!


°   Bugs & Buttons by Little Bit Studio

°   LetterSchool by Borreal

°   OSMOS by Hemisphere Games

°   Numberlys by Moonbot Studios

°   Princess Fairy Tale Maker by Duck Duck Moose

°   Toca Train by Toca Boca

°   Math Doodles by Carstens Studios

°   Write My Name by Injini

°   Dr. Seuss Band by Oceanhouse Media

°   Monster Physics by Dan Russell-Pinson

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