What makes a good interactive app for kids, when what appeals to adults may bore kids to tears (and vice versa)? Some developers, like Moonbot Studios, can square the circle in Pixar-like fashion and create experiences that delight both audiences. But just because an app is filled with "kids’ stuff" that would make many grown-ups roll their eyes--cheesy animated characters, neon colors, and cutesy sound effects--does that mean it’s "bad"? Hardly. A new science-education iPad app called "Bobo Explores Light" includes all of those things, and you know what? It charmed the pants off me.
The app, created by Game Collage, is essentially an interactive kid-friendly factbook about the science of light. Unlike "Journey to the Exoplanets," which mixes a few kid-friendly features into a dense, sometimes textbook-like experience, or "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore," which is so pristine and proper that it feels like fine art, "Bobo" is squarely pitched at the juice-box and nap-time set. In a word, it’s silly: The main character is a bubbleheaded, baby-talking robot named Bobo, after all.
But silly doesn’t mean stupid or boring. "Bobo" is full of surprises and delights, like an opening intro sequence in which Bobo flies through space from the outer reaches of the solar system toward the sun: Tilt the iPad this way and that, and Bobo veers to avoid the planets zooming at his head. The sequence lasts long enough to immerse you in its simple game mechanics, but doesn’t overstay its welcome by a nanosecond. When your pint-sized target audience is notoriously intolerant of getting bored, this is the perfect first impression for an app to make.
From there, the app presents a series of nested mini-chapters covering everything from the basics of solar radiation and photosynthesis to the history of the light bulb. Text blocks are snappy and succinct, with plenty of toylike interactions embedded in them to keep restless little minds engaged. (Key terms are set in giant comic-book-like type, and make a "sproinnggg!" sound when you touch them. I’m about 25 years older than "Bobo"'s intended readership and even I couldn’t resist.) But the most engaging features are the open-ended interactives, like a primer on reflection that presents a cartoon laser gun and a half-dozen mirrors, inviting you move them anywhere you like onscreen to see how the beam reacts. (I couldn’t help it: I set it up to shoot the laser right at Bobo’s head.)
In short, "Bobo Explores Light" is so successful because it emphasizes its interaction design on that middle word: explore. You can’t go 10 seconds anywhere in this app without encountering something fun (and educational) to do. And not just rotely tap and swipe from A to B to Z, but grab and poke and twist and play on your own terms. Kid-friendly design lets the kid "design" their own experience, and "Bobo Explores Light" nails it.