At PAX East this year I got to demo Osmo—an educational accessory for iPads. It’s intended to get kids to work together solving problems around a screen.
So how does it work? It’s pretty cool. Osmo comes with a stand that props your iPad up and an attachable mirror that fits over the camera. The mirror angles the iPad’s camera, allowing it to see objects on the surface in front of the iPad. Using Osmo’s free apps, you can then play a series of games.
The first game they demonstrated was called “Words.” The iPad screen displayed a picture with blank spaces for its name. I sorted through some alphabet tiles until I found the correct word, throwing the correct letters on the table as I found them. With each tile, the camera recognized the letter and filled in the blank.
“It combines the physical world and the digital world,” Erica Villadao explained. “With this particular game, parents can customize it. You can implement all your own photos, your own words. For example, if your child loves soccer you can put their favorite soccer plays in it, and that way they can learn how to spell their names.”
The junior level of Words is more simplified, providing kids with everything but the first letter of the word. The letter tiles come in two colors, so when you’re playing with a second person the iPad can tell how many points each of you have.
The second Osmo game is Tangram, in which you use colorful wooden tangrams to mimic the design on the screen.
“The first level will show you all the colors that you need to start building,” Villadao said. “The next level will shade it out between black and grey. The harder level will black it out, and the most difficult level is the blue level, and it’ll black it out and won’t give you any feedback until it’s correct.”
The last game, Newton, is the coolest demonstration of the Osmo’s camera functionality. Bouncing balls drop from the top of the screen, and your task is to get them to hit the targets. You can use anything to do this, and you don’t have to touch the screen. The iPad camera will see your hands—or whatever objects you place as obstacles—and the balls will bounce right off them. It was so cool to see my hands (laid flat on the table) show up like shadows on the screen. “I usually recommend also to use whiteboards,” Villadao told me as I contorted my hands into paths for the balls to roll along. “With a whiteboard you can draw on it, and then erase your lines as well.”
Newton is an exercise in learning angles and physics, as well as spatial awareness and problem-solving. Villadao said that some teachers display the game on smartboards in their classroom and have the class solve the problems together. In fact, she recommends that all of the games be played in groups or pairs. That way, the interaction is with other people around the screen, rather than just between child and iPad.
Now a fourth game has been added to Osmo’s repertoire: a drawing game called Masterpiece that reproduces photos with simple lines so children can draw them.
From what I saw of our brief demonstration, Osmo was definitely engaging. I’ve spoken to parents before about their concerns about iPads in the classroom. Two main fears crop up every time: overexposure to screens and lack of parental controls (meaning kids could get online and run into not-so-appropriate stuff).
This particular program circumvents both of those problems. It makes it very easy for kids to interact with others while using the app, and all of the apps can be used without Internet access.
Osmo provide opportunities for kids to learn using their hands. For children who learn better when they can touch and manipulate objects, smart toys like Osmo can be better than other educational games.
Osmo is a platform that’s growing. It’s currently in over 2,000 classrooms. To me, it seems like a great opportunity to teach skills that we can’t necessarily quantify: teamwork and communication, as well as motor and visual skills. Currently Words and Masterpiece are the only games that let parents and teachers design their own lessons. However, since there are more Osmo games on the way, I hope to see the doors open to more opportunities for homemade games and lessons.
The real appeal of Osmo comes from how it fosters interaction between people—something it already does very well. Having an extra layer of interaction so that parents can create games themselves could take Osmo to the next level.