What do you get when a team of Emmy winning children’s TV producers are introduced to the iPad? You get a company that has a whole new vision for the future of television. That company, PlaySquare, is working on something they’re calling “touchable TV.” It’s the idea that the child shouldn’t just be watching television, they should be interacting with it. And it’s not a second screen experience, where the iPad app serves to complement the show a child is viewing. It’s a television network on the iPad, where the show itself becomes personalized to the child, growing with them the more they play, and even “leveling up” as they learn new things.
Before delving into the details of what PlaySquare actually does, it’s important to highlight who’s behind this thing. The CEO, Alex Kay, founded the three-time Emmy award-winning PBS TV show WordWorld. Creative Director Scott Webb was EVP and Worldwide Creative Director at Nickelodeon for 17 years. CTO Tinsley Galyean has a Ph.D. in interactive media from MIT Media Lab, and has built multi-touch experiences for Disney, Discovery Kids, Scholastic, and MOMA. PlaySquare Exec Producer Tina Peel has over thirty years in television, including 15 at Sesame Workshop. She also produced Max and Ruby for Nickelodeon.
So when Alex Kay refers to this group as a “dream team,” he’s not really exaggerating. Kay says that he started working on the idea about a year ago, and apparently, it wasn’t hard to attract talent to the project. “Everybody in the television industry has been feeling like something like this was necessary, and also right around the corner,” he says. “The concept of interactive television has been around for 20-plus years,” Kay adds, “but we never had the technology platform to do it.”
Sesame Street, of course, was a leader in bringing forth the idea that kids’ TV wasn’t something presented to the child, but something which engaged the child directly. Puppets looked into the camera. It was groundbreaking. Now it’s almost par for the course to see “interactive” TV programs, like Dora the Explorer who blinks and goes quiet after asking the child questions like “where do we go next?” and “what was your favorite part of the day?” But this is nothing compared with what could happen on the iPad.
“We think the next children’s network is going to be on a tablet or a smart device,” says Kay. “Because these devices are smart, we can have more interactive content. But we can also have a totally different relationship between the parent and the child. It’s no longer broadcasting to the masses. It’s very personal, it’s on demand, it’s interactive, and it’s leveled. It will know what the child likes so it can make suggestions, so it can be a curator of content.”
In PlaySquare, whose name derives from the square shape a child draws on the screen to enter the interactive episode, characters don’t just ask questions, they engage the child to participate in the episode itself. This in and of itself, isn’t hugely divergent from some of the interactive kids’ iPad games on the market now. (Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Road Rally’s “appisode” comes to mind). But the difference here is that while eventually the child will master Road Rally and become bored with it, PlaySquare’s TV appisodes could adapt as the child learns.
“What we’re doing is that, over time, we’re actually building a ‘play world.’ What that means is that each episode will have a land – a panorama – where the child will play, discover and find things,” explains Kay. “And the panoramas will be additive.” For example, in the first episode, a character walk by a cave which he doesn’t go into until the second episode. But after watching the second episode, the cave in the first episode comes alive and can be interacted with.
PlaySquare will also set up a backchannel for parents, through a second app, which will allow them to keep up with what the child is learning.
Much of this – the leveling up, the parent-facing app, and the full lineup of shows, is not yet available. The plan is to have many of these things ready by year-end. Today, the PlaySquare app is just introducing the concept of “touchable TV.” Pricing for future episodes and “season” discounts are still in the works. Talks with other children’s’ TV producers are underway.
In the app that’s out now, children (ages 3-6) can only interact with WordWorld. (Kay has the rights to those assets, so it was the easiest to get started with, he says). But the vision is much bigger than what you’ll see today.
The company is currently bootstrapped, and is talking to investors now.