I’m sitting in the carpeted hallway of the Austin Convention Center, playing a game on an iPad. Stereo crashes and echoes fill my earbuds as I wheel through different points of view in a beautifully rendered, three-dimensional, dark and moody landscape. This is the arena where my robot, customized out of spare parts from a virtual junkyard, will fight another robot.
Frank Meehan, the British founder of Kuato, says, "We talk to lots of parents, as well as the kids themselves," he said. "Dads are like: do they have to do games? Can’t they just do learning? And mums are like, but is it fun? They know kids better. They see time and time again some sort of learning program or app given to kids, and the kid is bored after 10 minutes. If you don’t make this thing fun, there’s just no point."
"The kids tell us they like gaming—the achievements, rewards, challenges, puzzles," says Meehan. "But the current stuff they look at is poorly done. It looks like something out of 1999." His development team, who’s worked on the Playstation Home platform, games like Call of Duty: Zombies, and films like Titan AE, created a 3-D game with handcolored backgrounds and atmospheric soundscapes.
Their lead educator, David Miller, a former Teacher of the Year in the U.K., has a humanities background and was known for creating rich multimedia presentations to help put across the message of, say, a Robert Frost poem. "You can’t really learn unless there’s an emotional engagement," he says, and aesthetics—imagery, sound—are an important part of that. "This is what real teaching should be: the richest use of media as a way to understanding something."
Besides the motivation to build and fight robots, says Meehan, learning games have to cover topics that kids are actually interested in, and that aren’t covered well in the traditional curriculum. "We went around and asked loads of kids, how do you want to learn, and what do you want to learn? They told us, I want to learn to code—make apps, movies, games, things like 3-D rendering and Photoshop, and science was really big as well." So those areas are where Kuato focused its efforts.
"We wanted to be the first proper learning to code game that’s hit mobile," says Meehan. But his vision doesn’t stop there. Kuato’s big idea is to advance current technologies to create a virtual, artificially intelligent personal tutor that practically passes the Turing test, and could be used to teach anyone anything they want to know, in any domain of knowledge. Their first AI game, debuting later this year, features a girl crashlanding in an Enterprise-like spaceship. Her computer is damaged and because of the First Law of Robotics, can’t repair itself. So she must hack her way in and fix the computer before she runs out of oxygen. The computer in the game uses conversational AI to help guide the player.
Kuato plans to release an API in further iterations of the game, so that any knowledge domain can be programmed in: the challenges may include biology (learn about the life forms on a new planet so you can farm food and defend yourself), chemistry, or even foreign languages and poetry. "We’re trying to distill a teacher’s intelligence and empathy into a machine and lead a child towards learning a concept," says Miller. "We’re working really hard with the AI people in order to create an intelligence that mimicks a teacher’s encouragement and feedback. That’s the end goal. Games should be about the experience of learning, rather than the experience of being taught."
[IMAGE: Hands with Gamepad via Shutterstock]