Interaction Design for Children (IDC) Conference, New York City

I am thrilled to be in NYC for the 12th annual International Conference on Interaction Design and Children with fellow researchers, designers, and educators. It's certainly exciting to be surrounded by like-minded people who are passionate about designing meaningful learning experiences for kids. I also had the opportunity to present our paper Go Go Games: Therapeutic Video Games for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, which was accepted for publication. You can download it here.

A Year in Review: Go Go Games

Our team at Go Go Games Studios spent over six months working with therapists, game designers, educators, and young learners to research, design, and develop our inaugural iPad app. After putting on all of the finishing touches, we were ready to release Go Go Games on iTunes\. Since then, we’ve been overjoyed by the positive reviews we’ve received from around the world!

Ahem… hope you don’t mind if we toot our horn! Here are a few major highlights:

We feel incredibly fortunate to have such tremendous support around our innovative approach to game-based therapies for children with autism. And while our games have been specifically designed for children with autism in mind, it’s universally agreed upon that they’re beneficial for all children. Teachers With Apps says that Go Go Games promotes “deeper learning through totally enjoyable activities and we highly recommend that it be played with all kids, autistic or not.” That’s right — it’s doubly awesome!

So, you may be wondering… what’s next for Go Go Games? We’re already off to a great start for the new year. Just last week, we received an ★ Editor’s Choice Award ★ for Excellence in Design from Children’s Technology Review. We’re exceptionally proud of the quality of our work and we continue to strive to design products that both amuse and educate the children we serve. In the coming months, we’ll be collaborating with research teams at Stanford University and the University of Washington to study the effectiveness of our current games. Of course, the big (and important) news is that we’re in the process of developing our next product!

Go Go Games is now available on the iTunes Store!

Today’s the day we’ve been anxiously waiting for! Alexis Hiniker, Heidi Williamson, and I couldn’t be more excited to announce that Go Go Games is now available for download on the iTunes Store!

If you haven’t been following my previous blog postsGo Go Games is a suite of games on the iPad that helps preschool and elementary-aged children to learn to notice multiple features of the objects in the world around them – a specific perceptual skill that is essential to learning and comes naturally to most children, but is known to be a common difficulty for those with ASD. Improvements in this critical ability lead to gains across a broad range of skills. Our mission is to do something bigger than just teach one targeted life skill, and we are very excited by the opportunity to teach something foundational with our games that could improve general learning outcomes for a range of children on the spectrum.

We’ve designed and built three fantasy adventures that feel more like play but work like therapy. Our themes (trucks, trains, and spaceships) reflect the interests of the many children with autism with whom we’ve tested the game, and we are very inspired by the positive responses we’ve received so far:

My son loves Go Go Games and he’s so excited when he plays it. From the time he started playing the game about a month ago until now, his progress has been incredible. You can see him stop, focus, and look carefully to find the correct match. He really pays attention, which is something that he didn’t do well before.
— Nikii Finch-Morales, Director of Wildlife at Curi Odyssey & mother of a 7-year old with ASD
Our students are really engaged while playing Go Go Games, especially because of the intuitive touch interface, fun graphics, and audio/visual reinforcements. For many of our kids with ASD, paying attention to details and being able to discern important information from a background is a tough skill, which the game addresses. We’re looking forward to using this portable learning tool in our classrooms.
— Susan Rose, Director of Arbor Bay School

Go Go Games is available on the iPad for $1.99… but we’re offering a special introductory price of $0.99 through the end of October in the Education Category of the iTunes Store. Be sure to get it now

For more details, please read our official press release.  You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Go Go Games Unveiled

The Learning, Design & Technology Expo at Stanford University marked an exciting moment for Alexis Hiniker, Heidi Williamson, and me when we unveiled , the project that we’ve poured hearts and souls into for the past four months.

We were very proud to present in front of a distinguished panel of edtech leaders, academics, autism specialists, and design industry professionals, which included:

After our presentation, we were ecstatic about the feedback and excitement surrounding our project!

Wow. This is a project to keep an eye on, and when Go Go Games comes to the iTunes Store (soon, say the team), I’d heartily recommend this app to all families, not just those with autistic children. Incredibly thoughtful game design.
— Audrey Watters, Hack Education
Thoughtful analysis of “difficult” and how you design the game to strike perfect balance of increasing difficulty and providing sufficient challenge over repeated game play (or practice). This is not just a one-shot game but training (as you mentioned kids need to actually improve).
— Lori Takeuchi, Ph.D., The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop

For us, the process of designing and building Go Go Games was both fun and educational, but we knew that our project would lack meaning if it never achieved its intended purpose: improving the lives of children with autism. For this reason, we plan to submit Go Go Games to the Apple App store by the end of the month. In making the game available to the public, we hope to reach a broad audience of children across the spectrum. In turn, we plan to collect additional learner metrics and usability data to continue to improve on both the interface of the game and the learning it produces. It is our hope that Go Go Games will inspire others to design their own theoretically-grounded apps and casual games that are modeled after proven therapies. The iPad is proving to be an ideal technology for children with ASD, and we believe it has a lot of potential to be not only fun and easy to use, but also educational.

We’re excited by the positive response we’ve already gotten from the parents and educators that helped test Go Go Games and we’re looking forward to sending it out into the world!

Stay tuned for our upcoming release…

Stanford Learning, Design & Technology Expo

With much anticipation… in exactly one week, the Stanford Learning, Design & Technology 2012 cohort will be showcasing its Master’s projects to the public at the Stanford Learning, Design & Technology Expo on Friday, August 3, 2012 from 4:00pm – 6:30pm at the Center for Educational Research (CERAS).

For the past two quarters, Alexis Hiniker, Heidi Williamson, and I have been furiously working on our master’s project. Together, we developed and designed Go Go Games, a fully-functional suite of iPad video games to support children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) in learning to quickly notice multiple features of the objects in the world around them – a specific perceptual skill that is essential to learning and comes naturally to most children but is known to be a common difficulty for those with ASD. To learn more about Go Go Games, please visit our official website.

This project has been a massive undertaking, but I'm really proud of what we've accomplished! Come check out our live demo next Friday.

We look forward to seeing you there!

Zeum Is Now Officially the Children’s Creativity Museum

This weekend marked an exciting moment in Zeum’s thirteen-year history, and I feel very proud to have been a part of it. After years of struggling with an ambiguous (and difficult to pronounce) name and challenging location (due to visibility issues), Zeum reopened as the Children’s Creativity Museum. It was a strategic endeavor for the small non-profit — an ambitious one that required the help of heavy industry leaders like Bain & Co. (pro-bono strategic planning),Landor & Associates (pro-bono logo design and visual identity), and Gyroscope, Inc. (Master Exhibits Plan), along with the tireless efforts of Exhibit Developer,Maria Mortati, and Zeum/CCM’s remarkably motivated staff.

Audrey Yamamoto, the museum’s Executive Director, describes the change as “our boldest step ever to realize our vision to be a recognized top destination and community resource for Bay Area families.” In addition to the new name and brand, the Children’s Creativity Museum also unveiled a new Imagination Lab that is “grounded in our educational approach that inspires kids to imagine, create and share. These enhancements will build on the engaging activities you’ve grown to love while expanding our offerings for all our visitors, especially 3 to 5-year-olds.”

This weekend’s launch was just the first phase of a long-term strategic vision and exhibits plan. Rest assured, the transformation is not complete. There will be a lot more changes to look forward to in the future — all that’s needed now are the resources to make it happen!

For a closer look at Landor’s Creativity Critters, take a look at this video produced by the museum’s C.I.T.Y. teen interns:

Children’s Creativity Museum 
221 Fourth Street @ Howard
San Francisco, CA 94103

Up Close and Personal with Salman Khan

The other day, I joined the current Learning, Design, and Technology cohort at Stanford for a small group discussion with Salman Khan, the founder of the Khan Academy — a free online education platform that features homemade YouTube video tutorials (viewed nearly 100,000 times around the world each day) in math, science, and history. Salman has received phenomenal praise and widespread recognition for using video/social media to provide “a world-class education available to anyone, anywhere”.

Salman began the discussion by sharing how he conceived the idea for Khan Academy after he started helping his young cousin (long-distance) with math in his spare time. The concept for Khan Academy was “simple, but it didn’t exist”. He found fundamental problems with the way that most schools teach math, in which kids are forced to move along through math class regardless of whether they have mastered the concepts. As a result, Salman saw the need for a better way to teach math for slow kids, average kids and whiz kids. He aimed to solve this problem through straightforward, custom-paced, practical instruction using online videos: short (roughly 10-15 minutes long), interactive video lectures with handwritten equations and drawings on a digital notepad. To Salman’s delight, the YouTube parent/student/educator community exploded with approval for his unique and invigorating approach to education. Since 2006, he has single-handedly cranked out about 2,200 different educational videos.

Sitting in the same room as Salman, you can tell that he’s a natural math/science whiz (he’s got multiple degrees from MIT and an MBA from Harvard), and he clearly has a gift for making complex concepts playful and easy to understand.

The thing that I found remarkable is that Salman doesn’t rehearse before producing his videos. In fact, he just hits the record button and starts. He admits to making mistakes while solving his problems, but the videos are NEVER edited. Instead, Salman corrects himself in the middle of a problem, which actually enables the online students to better comprehend and remember the process for arriving at the correct answer. His approach is actually quite interesting because for most professionals (especially a perfectionist like me!), it’s important to push out a really polished product. Meanwhile, Salman believes in an “organic process” of iteration and putting something out there (“don’t be afraid”, he warns) to see if it works. And yes, lucky for him, his model sure does work!

I teach the way that I wish I was taught. The lectures are coming from me, an actual human being who is fascinated by the world around him.
— Sal

Google Art Project: Tour des Artes

Over a decade ago, I had the privilege of studying in Madrid, Spain. Part of the cultural experience living abroad was being able to visit some of Europe’s most renowned museums with ease. On my way home from class, I’d frequently hop on the metro and skip over to el Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza so that I could gaze at my favorite Dalí painting (Sueño causado por el vuelo de una abeja alrededor de una granada un segundo) and linger in silence. Dalí’s famous work always drew large and stifling crowds during the weekend, which I preferred to avoid. During school holidays, I’d visit the LouvreMusée RodinUffizi Gallery, and The British Museum – just to name a few. I relished that period when I had the time to leisurely visit so many incredible places.

Fast-forward to 2011. Although I still enjoy traveling, I just don’t have the chance to explore “world-class” museums like before. Truthfully, I spend more time at museums today than I used to because of the nature of my work. However, a visit to one of the “great” museums with legendary masterpieces does not happen as often as I would like.

Last week, Google launched the Art Project, an interactive tool that allows viewers to virtually wander through 17 of the world’s most famous art museums. Similar to the functionality of Google’s Street View, the user has the ability zoom, rotate, and pan to peruse the galleries, privately explore the celebrated works of art, and scrutinize details that one might not ordinarily be privy to — due to crowds or strict security guards. I have to admit that I find the Art Project a bit dizzying at times with all of the motion and movement, but overall, it’s a pretty wondrous visual experience.

To me, what makes Google’s Art Project groundbreaking is the way that these exclusive institutions around the globe have made their fine art accessible to anybody at any time, for free. Formerly reserved for the elite, these notorious museum collections are now wide open to the general public.

According to Roberta Smith’s New York Times article, The Work of Art in the Age of Google:

The Art Project has been hailed as a great leap forward in terms of the online art experience… Google offers a distinct and extraordinary benefit in its United Nations-like gathering of different collections under one technological umbrella, enabling easy online travel among them.

In addition, Google’s Art Project provides opportunities for art history and fine arts studies, which can be usefully woven into classroom curriculum (as outlined in today’s New York Times Learning Blog post Real vs. Virtual: Examining Works of Art Online).

Of course, Google’s new tool isn’t the same as visiting these museums in real life. But if I ever feel like dropping by the Hermitage in Moscow during my lunch break on a Monday afternoon, nothing is going to stop me!

Thinking Outside the Box

In my post a couple of months ago, I brought up the topic of America's creativity crisis and highlighted Sir Ken Robinson's philosophy on learning.  Just this past week, the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) produced a mesmerizing animation of Robinson's talk, Changing Paradigms in Education.  In my eyes, its an example of creativity at its finest! The illustrator, Andrew Park, produces imaginative white-board sketches that match precisely with Robinson's narrative.

The visual depiction of divergent thinking was of particular interest to me, especially as I am reading Tim Brown's book Change By Design.  Seeing a clear pictorial representation helped me to easily grasp Robinson's definition of the concept:

Divergent thinking isn’t the same thing as creativity. I define creativity as the process of having original ideas that have value. Divergent thinking isn’t a synonym but is an essential capacity for creativity. It’s the ability to see lots of possible answers to a question, lots of possible ways to interpret a question, to think laterally, to think not just in linear or convergent ways, to see multiple answers, not one.

Divergent thinking is the ability to think outside the box to generate ideas (however wild they may be) that challenge boundaries.  Why is this valuable? Because it leads to innovation and breakthroughs across disciplines - in education, design, business, government, healthcare, etc.  While divergent thinking is realistically used in conjunction with convergent thinking, its is important, as Robinson emphasizes, that divergent thinking be lauded at an early age (where it comes naturally) and continuously be encouraged throughout childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.

The Art of Pixar Animation

There’s definitely something special about the San Francisco Bay Area. The region is an incubator of the world’s most successful and innovative companies (e.g., Google, Apple, Facebook, eBay, Twitter, IDEO, etc.) that have dramatically shaped our culture. It boggles my mind that I live in a city where I am within arms reach of these inspiring organizations, one of which is just a short BART ride away from my home.

Pixar, based in Emeryville, CA, is one of the most successful film studios of all-time. Pixar has earned a record-breaking number of accolades, including twenty-four Academy Awards, six Golden Globes, and three Grammys. Films like Toy StoryMonsters, Inc.The IncrediblesRatatouilleWall-E, and Up, have been overwhelmingly popular because they appeal to audiences of all ages – not only children, but teens, adults, and seniors alike. So, how does Pixar do it? What makes Pixar’s movies so different from all of the other blockbuster animated feature-length films from places like Blue Sky StudiosDisneyDreamWorks Animation, or Lucasfilm?

Most people would agree the secret ingredient for Pixar’s movies is the story. More than just the story, it’s the art of visual story-telling and character development:

When you see the movie, all of the work that we do should disappear. You want people to believe in these characters and feel like they’re in the story with them.
— Bob Pauley, Production Designer at Pixar

Wall-E is a prime example of the magic of Pixar's storytelling.  Wall-E's opening was nearly dialogue-free (shockingly) for the first thirty-minutes.  The captivating character development, accompanied by incredible visuals, sound, and musical score, drew in the audience by building an instant heart-felt emotional connection.

If the story isn’t there, all the breakthrough graphics in the world piled onto it won’t matter.
— Joe Ranft, Head of Story at Pixar

Building that emotional connection is key. While Pixar’s movie Up is a fun family movie, it also delves into complex, real-world emotions where the characters confront real-life experiences like romance, infertility, death, and regret – all in the first ten minutes of the film. Ask anyone who’s seen the movie if they cried during those first ten minutes – and you’ll get a resounding “yes”. The opening scene of Up was emotional, powerful, real – and risky. The film would not nearly have had the same impact without those first ten minutes. What makes Pixar unique is that it’s willing to push the envelope. It doesn’t gloss over the not so warm and fuzzy real-life bits as if they don’t exist. Unlike other film producers, who tend to be overly cautious about what they think their family audiences want to see, Pixar presents it in a way that’s gripping and meaningful.

Of course, Pixar’s breakthroughs in computer animation certainly cannot and should not be ignored. Pixar is equipped with some of the best technical and creative talent in the industry. With all of the top film studios so heavily focused on developing impressive, photorealistic CGI with hundreds of millions of dollars behind their films, the competition for stunning visual effects is fierce. Pixar’s competitive advantage goes back to one very basic element – the story being told.

For an in-depth Pixar experience, the Oakland Museum of California is now offering an insightful and extraordinary look into the renown studio’s history and creative work with PIXAR: 25 Years of Animation. Until January 9, 2011, over 500 works will be on display, including storyboard sketches, concept drawings, paintings, maquettes, media installations, and the very, very cool Toy Story Zoetrope!

Animation = Brilliant Storytelling

If you’ve ever listened to a StoryCorps interview, you know exactly what I mean when I say that it “hits the spot” — and I’m referring to that emotional spot. Even the toughest person will likely find their eyes watering because the conversations are just so heartfelt. Sometimes they’re profound, sometimes they’re not — but what makes them special and inspirational is that they’re real people sharing their relationships and life experiences.

StoryCorps recently launched its first animated short, “Q&A” — which in my opinion, amplifies the impact of their standard interviews. By adding visual context through the art of animation, the viewer can connect with the people revealing their stories on a new, creative level.

Watch and see for yourself:

Q&A from StoryCorps on Vimeo.

A Creativity Revolution?

One of my very favorite TED Talks was presented in 2006 by Sir Ken Robinson, an internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity and innovation.  In his presentation, Schools Kill CreativityRobinson makes a comical, compelling, and inspiring argument for transforming education.  He asserts that "we are in a new era of human existence" where we can no longer afford to squelch creativity if we hope to thrive as leaders in today's competitive global economy.  Yet, our educational system is so fixated on standardized test scores (the bane of my existence) and strict academic curriculum that space isn't made for nurturing creativity in the classroom.  Intelligence is measured by academic ability.  Students are penalized when they are wrong, but as Robinson explains, "If you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original...We stigmatize mistakes.  We are educating people out of their creative capacities."

Interestingly, the very same topic grabbed the mainstream media spotlight last month when Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman published their cover story in Newsweek, The Creativity Crisis in America.  The article, backed by research and neuroscience, reinforces the same serious concerns about the decline in creatvitiy.  They also found that:

The potential consequences are sweeping. The necessity of human ingenuity is undisputed. A recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the
no. 1 “leadership competency” of the future. Yet it’s not just about sustaining our nation’s economic growth. All around us are matters of national and international importance that are crying out for creative solutions…

The evidence is pretty clear that there needs to be a significant shift in our priorities and values in education, as well as in the workplace. Both incessant exposure to video games and TV and lack of creative development in schools have been identified as being some of the root causes.

But, since we can’t solely rely on schools to fix the problem there are other strategic ways to collectively fill the creativity gap through initiatives led by technologists, product designers, entertainers, artists, non-governmental organizations, and museums.

Fortunately, this recent Newsweek article has helped galvanize national awareness regarding The Creativity Crisis. The research and findings support the work that my cohorts at Zeum and the Bay Area Discovery Museum are focused on, which gives us confidence that we are steering in the right direction!