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Tiny Ears Update

January 25th, 2012 No comments

Well, the first week of Tiny Ears here in Chile has gone pretty well. We’ve had a meeting with Professor Nestor Becerra-Yoma and his team at the Speech Processing and Transmission Laboratory at Universidad de Chile and their software seems to meet our needs well and we are now trying to come up with a deal whereby we can use their software whilst trying to find funding to allow them to enhance it with all of the extra bits that Tiny Ears requires.

There will, no doubt, be a post to come whereby I detail all the fun and games to be had trying to find funding here in Chile, but I think what is there presently will be enough to provide a good enough prototype with which to secure funding. Yet again I am wishing that  I was able to find a co-founder to help me with these business matters as I would far rather just concentrate on building the product and leave these other consideration to someone else, but I guess that’s what a startup entrepreneur is, someone willing to dirty their hands with all the jobs that need doing.

On that basis, and with that weight lifted from my mind, I am ready to start working on the storybook itself. I will be getting in touch with the various loosely organised Tiny Ears members who have agreed to work on the project and try and get everyone together on a Skype call to discuss what needs to be done. Now that the Speech Recognition part is at least partially resolved then all the different members of the team who I had been putting off getting overly involved due to the uncertainty of the outcome of the meeting with the Universidad de Chile. I really feel that Tiny Ears can start to move forward with purpose now.

Tiny Ears Team Update

January 9th, 2012 No comments

I know I’ve been very quiet on the Tiny Ears front recently, but it’s been rather hectic with the move recently. However, that does not mean that I’ve been idle. I’ve been networking like crazy, meeting many interesting people and building up a team of people around me to help make Tiny Ears the most awesome project ever. As such I would like to welcome the first of my new collaborators, Persistent Peril.

Ginny and Garth are fantastic, BAFTA award winning animators whose characterisations and style I love, and I believe kids will love their creations too. Their enthusiasm is amazing and I have no doubt that they will help me to create a beautiful and fun app. I am really pleased to be working with them.

What a #SWEL party this is

November 29th, 2011 No comments

Last weekend I participated in Startup Weekend Education London (SWEL), the first Startup Weekend Education to occur outside the US. Held at the Free Word Center in London, SWEL is a startup ‘Vertical’, an event aimed at helping startups get from idea to company in 54 hours. I went along with Tiny Ears to see what I could see and hopefully to find some passionate collaborators to help bring the project into reality.

The format of the weekend was this.

6:30 Friday night, participants turned up and networked while eating pizza before taking it in turns to give a 60 second idea pitch before the entire room in what was termed ‘pitchfire’. Those that pitched then had to drum up enthusiasm for their projects by gathering votes for their idea in the form of post-it notes. Educators, being uniquely powerful at an event dedicated to education technology, had ‘power up’ pink post-it’s to give an extra boost to projects they wanted to get behind.

Votes were then totted up and the top 15 ideas got brought through as the ideas that were to be worked on throughout the weekend. Pitchers then had to try and recruit a team that would work on their idea for the rest of the weekend.

Finally, after all that hard work, the weekend culminates in the pitches, selling your idea to the panel of industry notables, business honchos and money types. These judges then decide who the top three startups are and the overall winner gets a goody-bag of awesome prizes.

Despite crashing on my pitchfire 60 seconds, I got voted through and managed to persuade a small group of 3 people to Tiny Ears’ cause. These were Stefan Kreitmayer, a game designer, David Jennings an educator and psychologist and, part time, Mike Mompi,  who actually worked for one of the sponsors but decided to join in the Startup fun.

Over the course of the three days we defined how we were to approach the learning experience that the app was going to use and built a small prototype based upon one of those theories. It was great to get going on a prototype and now there are lots of ideas to put into a series of prototypes that we can user test against real children further down the line. We also thought about the business side of things and put some actual numbers based on customer research against those ideas.

Sunday was spent largely preparing for the final pitch. Everyone worked really hard over the weekend, but it was during this period that my team really came into their own. Mike was amazing at helping to construct the pitch and listening to me fumble over it until I got it right. His feedback was invaluable and I’m sure it was because of him I didn’t crash and burn as I did during pitchfire. Stefan was a rock all weekend, but his last minute video editing, Illustrator and logo creation skills really helped turn the pitch into something that looked professional. And not to leave out David, who was unable to attend on Sunday, but spent Saturday doing all the research that we used during the pitch.

And what, might you ask, was I during while my team designed user interfaces and created pitch content? Well, mostly programming to be honest, as always. But also networking and selling the idea, talking to educators and feeding back what I learned into the UI and design of the prototype.

The pitches were great. It was inspiring to see so many unformed ideas from Friday night had morphed into fully functioning, well structured, feasible business models. Many of the teams gave really fantastic pitches, including the best pitch intro video ever from Youny. My pitch went well and I was really pleased with what we achieved over the weekend.

The judges deliberated over dinner and my nerves were on edge when we all sat down to hear the final judgement. To my joy, Tiny Ears came in 3rd, with really good feedback from the judges. It was just the enormity of the task ahead that seemed to weigh against the project, which was a perfectly valid point and one which I agree with totally. But as I’ve always said, I know it’s hard but that’s no reason not to try. And if we pull it off it will result in something amazing.

Second place went to Edevents, a startup around streamlining the process teachers have to go through when organising things, from simple form filling in to organising and communicating large school trips. The winners, completely deservedly so, were Night Zookeeper, an inspiring and fantastically executed creative learning world for children to enjoy both in and outside of school. If you want to encourage your child to learn through creativity, then I really do suggest you check them out.

All in all the weekend was well worth it. Tiny Ears progressed in leaps and bounds over the weekend, the idea was validated many times over and I made some fantastic contacts. There are a number of projects that I will be following closely over the next few months, as I know many will be following mine. If you have an idea and need help to move it out of the idea stage and into reality, I highly recommend the Startup Weekend experience.

Finally, here is a video of the Tiny Ears prototype that we built over the weekend. Once again, thanks team. I couldn’t have done it withut you.

Tiny Ears Prototype from Emily Toop on Vimeo.

Categories: Radical Robot, Startup Chile, Tiny Ears Tags:

Introducing Tiny Ears

November 21st, 2011 No comments

Last week I met with Ellen De Vries of The Copy House for a naming session. A naming session is where uncreative people like me get to sit down with a creative person who is good with words to try and come up with a name for a project/business/enterprise. And, lo and behold, it works! During the session we came up with a few different names that we were happy with then systematically eliminated a bunch of them. Elimination was due to a number of things, including the impact of a name, trademarks already being taken, companies already formed with a name and simply because the more we thought about them, or said the names out loud, the less appropriate they seemed.

After all this I was left with 3 names to take away and ‘try on’ for a few days. After talking with a number of people, and mostly because it just fit, we are now ready to introduce the world to Tiny Ears, the technology that will, hopefully, be powering your educational applications very soon.

If you’re struggling to name your projects or company, I highly recommend organising a naming session with someone. I would also recommend that you use Ellen as she made the whole process fun as well as useful.

Categories: Radical Robot, Tiny Ears Tags:

Storybook Project Overview

November 4th, 2011 2 comments

I recently wrote a basic overview for the Storybook project that I’m taking to Chile, and I’ve realised having it on here is probably the best place to put it, so here it is.

Project Overview of Interactive Storybook for iPad
from Radical Robot

The Interactive Storybook for iPad project is designed to create an educational storybook for children between the ages of 4 and 7 that will help them learn to read sentences while providing an engaging and entertaining experience. The age range is designed to target children moving from reading single words, to sentences.

Many interactive storybooks are designed to entertain and tell a story, but provide little towards assisting the child to read the story for themselves. In most cases, this assistance is provided by parents or learning professionals, however these people are not always available to assist the child when they want. This project will utilise Speech Recognition technology to listen to the child as they read the story out loud, so as to provide encouragement, feedback, assistance and rewards at the point at which it is needed. Face detection will be used to determine whether or not the child is reading from the app rather than talking to someone off screen and will therefore serve to provide more accuracy to the speech recognition. Speech recognition can be disabled for adult led enjoyment.

As the child reads the story, the app will listen to their progress. When the child reads a word incorrectly, stumbles on pronunciation or takes a long time to read the word (the app only ‘listens’ when the child is looking at the app). It will then step in and prompt the child with assistance using the Phonics learning system. When the child correctly pronounces the word, then audible (‘Well done!’) and visual (animations) feedback is used to provide rewards.

The app will monitor the child’s progress over time (between readings of the story as well as within a reading session) so that feedback can be adjusted to the child’s progress. This means that words that are consistently mispronounced will receive more intervention and greater rewards for success than words that are more often correctly read. The actual form that the feedback/reward system will take is currently in development.

As additional rewards, at the end of every page, the story so far can be animated and interacted with. These animations can be expanded into games that will assist the child with learning the words that they have been struggling with in a fun and interactive way.

The app is designed to be a fun experience whether read together with a parent or alone. When read with a parent then the speech recognition and face detection can be disabled so that mum or dad can provide the learning value and assist their child in playing the games. However, whenever the child wants to play and mum’s busy, then the Speech Recognition can be activated to provide the required assistance and encouragement during self directed play.

This app is still in development, with a working prototype expected around March. Development at this time is focused around creating the speech recognition technology for children.

Creating an Intelligent, Interactive Storybook for Kids

October 11th, 2011 No comments

Apparently, 70% of all parents with iPads let their kids use them. I’ve seen kids as young as 2 pick an iPad up and start using it with little or no direction. It seems that with this tablet there is a device that kids can use, regardless or their current educational state or coordination. iPad developers seem to have caught on to this and the kids app market is a steadily growing one, with educational and gaming apps appearing all the time.

I first encountered kids using iPads when I spent time with Ian’s sister and family in Canada earlier this year. I’d taken my iPad with me and downloaded a bunch of kids games for Olivia (3) and Chloe (1) to play with. One of the first thing I noticed, however, was the poor quality of many of the apps, even those with big names like Peppa Pig behind them. Storybooks especially seemed to be nothing more than a digital version of the analogue book with the added disadvantage of not being chewable or usable for hitting your little sister with.

I also looked at how the girls interacted with the educational apps that I downloaded. Often they were no engaging enough to retain interest for more than a minute or two at a time, or did not offer enough incentive to continue when things got hard. Apart from one game, a memory card game, the average time that Olivia engaged with an app was about 2 minutes.  I started to wonder if I could do better and came up with the idea for an interactive storybook that helped kids between the ages of 4 and 7 learn to read.

I saw two problems with trying to create an educational storybook app. One was of entertainment and the other was feedback. While watching Olivia use the educational apps, I noticed that the amount of engagement she had with the app increased if an adult was there with her as she used the app and gave constant feedback and assistance when she needed it. However, the adults were not always available to give her the attention she needed and so she would put the iPad down and do something else instead.

I wondered if we could create the sense of feedback and support that an adult would normally provide by using Speech Recognition to listen to the child as they read the storybook and provide the feedback, encouragement, rewards and assistance at the moment it is required. We could use face detection on the front facing camera on the iPad 2 to determine whether or not the child was reading the book and use that as a guide to whether or not to listen or ignore what the app heard. Combine this with fun interactions, animations, multiple paths through the story and embedded games and I felt we could create an engaging, interactive learning experience.

Working with the Strong Steam team we are creating the Speech Recognition and Face Detection technology to use within the app and are in the process of putting together a prototype app. We’re looking for an early years learning professional with an interest in technology to help us out with how we make the app as engaging as possible while retaining the educational element. If you are one, or you know of one who might be interested, please do get in touch.