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Kidtech: Augmented reality, voice commands and the future - WiredFocus

Kidtech: Augmented reality, voice commands and the future – WiredFocus

How much tech is too much when it comes to younger users? It is a question that many parents have wrestled with – particularly since the pandemic hit.

You want to give them the opportunities that technology can bring but you also want to protect them from its worst effects.

It starts in the cradle. Connected baby monitors that allow parents to look in on their babies no matter where they are in the world. Wifi-connected toys that teach but could also be a potential privacy and security problem.

And then there are the ubiquitous smartphones and tablets, along with the apps that teach our children while they entertain them.

The reality is that we can’t stop the march of technology into our children’s lives. The pandemic showed just how vital technology has become, with work, education and social interaction all happening through the internet.

How can we introduce it safely and in an age-appropriate manner to our children?

That was a concern for the founders of Irish toy company HoloToyz. It was born in the pandemic, it uses augmented reality to create interactive experiences for children. The product range includes books, wall decals, tattoos and stickers with everything from monster trucks and dinosaurs to pets and unicorns that come to life through the use of a smartphone or tablet app.

Founded by husband-and-wife team Declan Fahy and Kate Scott along with a business partner, it has secured early investment from Brian Caulfield of Molten Ventures, Irish tech veteran John Herlihy and Tokyo-based angel investor Pat Ryan In addition, it has received a personal investment from Garry Lyons, founder of the Shipyard Technology Ventures and it is one of Enterprise Ireland’s high-potential start-ups.

“We are parents first in this business and business people second. What we’re trying to do is enhance traditional toys to make them more relevant to the way kids are engaging with technology,” Fahy said. “We never want to take. We always just want to enhance and that’s the whole mantra behind the business.”

That means the books, for example, will still get carefully created visuals that are colourful and child friendly. Add in the HoloToyz with characters that come to life with some taps or swipes on the screen while the text on the pages is read out to the child. It is both entertainment and educational, and open to children of all ages and abilities.

“We have great plans for the future to create more educational content,” said Scott. “For a young child to be able to see, in an immersive way, 3D animation come to life, it makes the learning experience a lot more exciting.”

There are future plans already afoot. The company has done a deal to produce licensed content from Nickelodeon, a move that will see characters such as Paw Patrol come to the HoloToyz platform.

Data and identity

From a parent’s point of view, there are several attractive things about HoloToyz. First, there is the price: none of it costs more than €30. Then there is the fact that the app isn’t focused on gathering personal data – you don’t sign up for an account or hand over identifying data.

HoloToyz is poised to take advantage of an expected boom in augmented reality, and by targeting the younger age group, it is hoping to gain traction in a market that hasn’t been a real focus for the technology. Fahy notes that although the company isn’t the first toymaker to try out AR, it has learned from those who have gone before.

“Anytime we hear about augmented reality advancements in this deck and this technology, it’s across all serious industries,” said Scott. “We’re forgetting that this generation is going to be the most educated generation ever because of the likes of this technology. We’re speaking to this young demographic and in a really safe way at a time that’s perfect for their learning curve because they are going to grow up with this technology anyway. And this is the perfect time for them to experiment with us, in a safe way.”

Kidtech may be a growing business, but it is also a challenging one. There are regulations to navigate, including the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act in the US, particularly around the processing of private data. In some cases, companies can’t collect any data on their users.

The value of getting it right is reflected in some of the deals in the industry. Gamesmaker Epic spent millions of dollars acquiring SuperAwesome, founded by Irish entrepreneur Dylan Collins, in 2020. With that deal came the company’s child-safe marketing platform that allows brands to reach consumers between six and 16.

Although no financial details were released, SuperAwesome was valued at more than $100 million (€89.6 million) after a funding round in 2018, attracting backers including Microsoft. It also signed a major deal with the world’s biggest advertising company WPP to better protect children online, making all its kidtech tools and products available to WPP agencies globally. The advertising industry is starting to take note of the potential of the sector.

Online interaction

There are more technologies coming down the line that parents will have to deal with. The metaverse, for example, is pitching itself as the future of how we will interact online. And a lot of how that works will depend on voice commands, something Irish company Soapbox Labs knows a lot about.

Founded by Dr Patricia Scanlon in 2013, it has been working on the use of the technology for children.

“We are starting to look at that generation as being voice natives; they don’t have the inhibitions that we do,” explains Dr Scanlon. “If you think back to every vision of the future of technology – in Star Trek or anything like that – it was always using voice because voice is the natural interface.”

Soapbox Labs has spent several years perfecting the technology to work with child voices, which has been a challenge in itself.

“They’re physically very different. That means their speech sounds different to a machine,” Dr Scanlon explains. “Their behaviours are different. Because they tend to shout, whisper, sing, repeat, pause too much, the system keeps thinking they’re finished when they’re not. But also they don’t follow language rules and a huge amount of the progress in the last decade, particularly has been around predicting what somebody’s saying based on what people normally say, how language rules are met.

“As a result, you find people who are like children or other challenging demographics, like someone who’s learning a language may not follow the rules, and therefore the system just gets it wrong a lot.

“We had to almost rethink every part of the system, and actually build things differently to help people who would have built them for adults because kids don’t always pronounce everything correctly.”

Unbiased software

Soapbox Labs technology is now used across a range of applications, from education to play, helping to screen children for dyslexia, or an aid for teachers in determining reading levels. The company started out in education and set the bar, Dr Scanlon says, because it wanted to be able to work for any kids aged two to 12, in real-world noise environments. Another important consideration is bias. Dr Scanlan says the company has worked hard to try to make sure that the software is as unbiased as possible and works as well as a human assessor, both from an efficacy point of view and to help rather than work against children. Big tech is littered with stories of inaccurate algorithms working against people of different cultures. Soapbox was aware of the potential harm that bias could do in the classroom.

“You’re basically reinforcing inequities that are already there,” Dr Scanlon says. “Part of our mission is to make sure that this is accessible for all, that it works accurately for all. You have to keep an eye on that; this is an ongoing effort for years. It’s not like we can fix it back in 2016 and then ignore the system.

Soapbox also sees a role for its technology in protecting children, through the use of its technology to verify age.

“I don’t think we were going to stop the metaverse. It’s one of those things that if we stick our heads in the sand and say ‘it’s wrong, we shouldn’t allow our kids to do it’, we’re missing an opportunity to make them safer places now,” Dr Scanlon says. “That’s where I’m hoping the legislation steps in and forces people to use the tools that already exist, you know, and Soapbox are right in that space of being able to protect kids. We use our technology to be able to do that.”

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