Former Googlers Launch Osmo, A Gaming Device That Combines Real-World Play With The iPad

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A number of companies have attempted to combine physical objects and the iPad in an effort to create new kinds of children’s games, whether that’s Crayola with their DigiTools coloring pens or games that teach toddlers their shapes, like Tiggly. Today, another digital toymaker, Tangible Play, is entering this space with the launch of a series of high-quality games designed for children ages 6 to 12, including puzzles, word games, and other forms of creative play.

In development for over a year, we first spotted Tangible Play demonstrating its games at a previous TechCrunch Disrupt Startup Alley.

The company was founded by ex-Googlers, including Pramod Sharma, who had earlier seen the intersection of physical and digital when he helped build Google’s book-scanning machine, and Jérôme Scholler, who had worked on Chrome for Android.

box-3pack-osmoBoth men are also dads, and like most parents, they have mixed feelings about the way today’s tablet computers engage kids’ attention. On the one hand, technologists generally like to see their kids embracing digital tools at young ages.

But, says Sharma, “[my daughter] could literally spend hours just looking at a screen, and doing nothing else. And as a parent, this is obviously concerning,” he says. That led the founders to create Osmo, the company’s first product built to combine social and creative play with the highly engaging tablet their kids were addicted to.

The games center around a technology which they refer to as “Reflective Artificial Intelligence.” What that means is that the Osmo gaming kit includes a uniquely designed reflective camera that snaps onto the top of the iPad, allowing the app to “see” the shapes and objects placed in front of the tablet on the tablet or other flat surface.

The game kit also includes an iPad stand and two physical games, their app counterparts, as well as third app that’s Osmo’s most recent addition.

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While the best way to experience Osmo is to try it for yourself, the general gist of the experience involves playing a game in front of the iPad, following software prompts along the way which guide the gameplay.

In the case of “Words,” children try to quickly guess the word by sliding letter tiles in front of the tablet, while in “Tangram” kids use colorful wooden pieces to try to reproduce the image on the screen by placing shapes together. A third title, “Newton,” lets you engage in more creative play by placing any object in front the iPad – glasses, a pen, your hands, etc. – to turn them into structures inside a game involving bouncing balls and targets.

Though my daughter is only four, and below the target age range for these apps, with some guidance we were able to play some of the Osmo games together. It was easy to see how these games could make the iPad a more social activity - something that’s more like the modern-day equivalent to what was once the family board game night at home.

That being said, the test versions I was able to try (admittedly a few weeks behind the versions of the apps launching today) did have some kinks. I found, for example, that the shapes game “Tangram” would sometimes not see the pieces correctly, lighting up to show a match, then dimming again for no apparent reason, then lighting up again, which was confusing.

The sounds effects and music also need work, as they didn’t seem quite as kid-friendly and engaging as they could be. (They actually sound better in the video above, than in person). But overall, the games work as advertised, provided you have good lighting and a flat surface to play them upon. And Sharma says that now the goal is to make Osmo work on any surface, including floors and tables alike.

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The company has been piloting the games in over one hundred schools, many near their home base of Palo Alto. From these early tests, the founders came to better understand the potential for Osmo from an educator’s perspective, explaining that their group play nature could help with a child’s social and emotional learning, while other games taught different concepts, like spatial intelligence and creative thinking.

Crowdfunding Launch

Today, Tangible Play is launching its crowdfunding campaign which will allow it to assemble a core group of early adopters who the team hopes will help to evangelize the product and help Osmo gain traction. Though the gaming kit will eventually retail for $99, crowdfunding backers will be able to get it for a discount at $49, with some limited availability. The goal is to raise $50,000 to help with start-up and manufacturing costs.

However, the company doesn’t really need the crowdfunding in order to get the device to manufacturing, as they’ve previously raised an undisclosed round of seed funding from K-9 Ventures last year.

You can join the new crowdfunding campaign or learn more here: www.playosmo.com.