Turning a tablet into a child's TV

Cyber space
Last Updated 30 March 2014, 15:30 IST

My son has been having conversations with imaginary characters. I know, because I can listen to some of them, and even see pictures.

The children’s entertainment publisher ToyTalk created an interactive program, the Winston Show, and as my son talks back to the characters in that show, I get emails with subject lines like, “Your kid said something awesome.”

I can sign into my account and find multiple sound files and screenshots of him having a conversation with an imaginary character from a show he’s been watching on his iPad. It’s adorable, and it’s the interactive future of tablet-based television.

Tablets and phones are an increasingly common way for children to consume television.

And that is changing the way content developers and even advertisers try to reach children in new locations.

The Winston Show is an example of the innovative new content types that are possible when a TV is also a hand-held computer.

It’s an iPad-only production, available as a free app, that is now in its second four-episode “season.” The company, based in San Francisco, was founded by two Pixar veterans, Oren Jacob and Martin Reddy, with the goal of providing interactive children’s programming.

As youngsters watch the show, the characters ask them questions; when they respond, the app uses speech recognition to interpret their answers, which then help drive the story line of each episode. 

The shows even use the front-facing camera to engage children in, say, trying on a character-appropriate hat.

The Winston Show has no ads, and ToyTalk said it hoped eventually to make money by licensing its technology to generate multiple story lines and recognise children’s speech.

ToyTalk was developed for the iPad, Jacob said, because it was a device that combines the way children want to watch television with the tools necessary for the Winston Show experience: a camera, a microphone and a touch screen (to activate the mike).

“I think that children want to be in control of what they watch and what they interact with,” Jacob said. “That happens by giving them a device they’re in control of. That puts the choice of what they do in their own hands.”

Hard data on children’s viewing habits is hard to come by, because the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act requires parental consent for data collection.

But anecdotally, most parents would say their children watch increasing amounts of television on tablets, and a look around any airplane, restaurant or living room says tablet viewing is a big deal. 

The research firm Forrester found that of children ages 12 to 17 who regularly use a tablet, 42 percent are streaming video or TV from sites like Netflix or YouTube, and 39 percent are watching TV programming stored on the device.

The Winston Show is the only one of its kind, but traditional publishers are also looking for new ways to reach children when they’re not in front of TVs.

The Cartoon Network of Turner Broadcasting just announced a new mobile phone app it is calling a “micro-network,” aimed at bringing original content to four-inch screens, as a way to be wherever youngsters are.

Publishers like Nickelodeon and PBS offer clips, games and episodes with apps, and DreamWorks Animation is working to develop a branded tablet, the DreamTab, that would deliver DreamWorks content in a child-friendly design.

These models have advantages for parents. Mobile devices are easy to apply parental controls to.

They’re portable, and they can deliver educational apps and books in addition to TV.

But they also raise questions about data collection, privacy, in-app purchasing and how exactly content publishers will make money in a world without commercials.

No doubt, my son’s experience with TV, movies and games meant for children is already far different from my own. And he’s not unique.

“Right now, the two biggest streaming devices for kids in the Netflix ecosystem are tablets and smart TVs, and they are neck and neck,” said Todd Yellin, Netflix’s vice president of product innovation.

Children’s content is so important at Netflix, Yellin said, that the company just hired a product development boss specifically focused on it.

The lack of commercials is a point of pride, especially in children’s programming, Yellin said.

“It’s one thing if you’re a grown-up and you know that’s a commercial, but kids merge the commercials with the entertainment content,” he said. “To be able to tell the difference isn’t as easy as we think.”

It may become even more difficult, some experts say, as companies try to innovate to find children across their various devices.

Cross-promotional, embedded digital ads and product placement advertising is becoming more typical, according to Common Sense Media.

In a recent study, the group said it was difficult to measure the impact of digital ad trends on children.

Exposure to online ads, and advertising in video games and through branded sites that cross-promote shows with toys is probably very high, the report said, and more study is needed.

For original programming publishers like Cartoon Network, the shift in viewing behaviour means combining traditional television programming with figuring out how to engage viewers on completely new platforms - a challenge facing all publishers, children’s or otherwise.

“We’re not just figuring out what to program onto these devices,” said Chris Waldron, vice president of Cartoon Network Digital.

“We’re figuring out the interface, how it should be constructed, and it’s basically as if we’re going back in time and inventing the television set, and inventing the cable network.”

Back at ToyTalk, inventing a new kind of interactive content is a technical challenge on a couple of levels.

First, writing episodes with multiple potential story lines per character is a remarkable creative feat. The show’s writers script “thousands” of possible responses, ToyTalk’s Jacob said.

Second, he said, the company is building “speech recognition for kids, which no one’s built before.” The better the speech recognition, the more realistic the character interaction.

One note for parents: To improve the speech recognition, ToyTalk collects recordings of your child as he or she interacts with the characters.

That’s also how you get the recorded snippets, which come complete with little screenshots of your child in action.

I admit, this made me uncomfortable at first, although it’s clearly disclosed in the activation email you receive when you sign up for a ToyTalk account.  It’s still disconcerting to know an app is recording everything your child says, along with photos - and that ToyTalk employees are listening to transcripts to improve their product.

But the end result is a good show. My son, age 7, loved interacting with the Winston Show, and can’t wait for new episodes.

And I liked getting his little recordings in email, too. Sometimes oversharing has its purpose.

Also, if you’re a parent who chooses to allow screen time for your child, it’s somehow more comforting to watch a child truly interacting and imagining along with a show, instead of passively staring at the screen.

If children are the testing ground for new models of content, advertising and device-specific behaviour, it’s because this generation is fluent in a panoply of devices.

“There’s a fluidity going back from the television to the tablet to the phone,” Waldron of Cartoon Network said.

“As long as they’re comfortable moving back and forth, that’s good for us, too. Our job is to entertain them on whatever device they happen to enjoy our content on.” 

(Published 30 March 2014, 15:28 IST)

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