The second time he does the trick, I’m still mesmerized. Osmo cofounder and CEO Pramod Sharma is demoing his company's iPad apps and hardware, which bridge the gap between on-screen gaming and the physical world. If it meets its $50,000 funding goal, Osmo could change the way kids play.
Sharma’s iPad is propped upright with a picture of a turtle on screen, along with six placeholders inviting us to spell out the name of the animal. Instead of reaching for an alphabet tile with a "T," he scoops up a random handful of letters. As he dumps them onto the table with the delight of a child knocking down a tower, the game on his iPad instantaneously identifies and sorts each letter, complete with chirps and "wanh wanh" sound effects. We’ve "guessed" the right answer—"T-U-R-T-L-E" is now complete—but with so many incorrect letters in the mix we lose the round.
This interplay between the physical and digital realms looks and feels like magic. Sharma, a former Google engineer, prefers to call it "reflective AI," or artificial intelligence. But for all the technical wizardry happening in the background, the product is simple: A beautifully designed toy with the potential to transform how students and families play games.
"Osmo can connect anything around you to the virtual world," Sharma says. The three apps that he and his team have built take advantage of advances in computing speed and camera power to redefine the idea of "natural" play with a digital twist, no instructions required. Sharma envisions "a five-year-old playing with a grandma, and both having fun."
While at Google, Sharma developed the infamous technology for rapidly scanning millions of books, in addition to working on other projects. After leaving the search giant, Sharma set out to develop a new form of play rooted in the physical world, but enhanced by technology. He raised a seed round from K9 Ventures, built and patented the reflective software, and then tested over 40 game variations with hundreds of children, including his four-year-old daughter. Along with cofounder Jerome Scholler, a fellow Google engineer with experience in game design, he narrowed the prototypes down to three games, two of which require Osmo-built physical props.
Now the startup is launching with a $50,000 crowdfunding campaign, based on pre-sales, that it hopes will cover its first manufacturing run. A starter set that includes an iPad stand and camera mirror, as well as the props for the games called Words and Tangram, will cost $99. Early backers will pay $49.
In addition to families, Osmo is looking to schools as a potential market. In the Bay Area, near Osmo’s Palo Alto headquarters, more than 100 classrooms have signed on to use the games, which are appropriate for children ages 6 to 12.
Schools farther afield have also expressed interest. Vaughn Kauffman, an educator based in Montana, says teachers in her districts plan to use Osmo as a strategy for developing students’ problem-solving skills. "The thing that hooked me the most was watching the engagement and how willing kids were to keep working even when they couldn't figure it out," she says. "In traditional schoolwork, if they can't get it the first time, most of them won't try it again." Kauffman is hopeful that learning perseverance will help them "stick with the content" in other subjects.
Of the three games, Newton—the most open-ended, designed for "natural interfaces" like pen and paper—appears to be Sharma’s favorite. He recalls his childhood loves of drawing and playing with clay—traditional activities that Newton can reflect back, and make interactive. "There's a sense of freedom that adds to the excitement and fun," he says.
It's hard to imagine that kids won't agree.