One moment, I’m flying through a sea of bubbles. The next, I’m pulling at an elastic membrane of cells. And yet another, I’m poking at an eye (it’s okay, the cartoon seems to enjoy it—he smiles!).
I’m playing Bubl Tap, by Russian educational app development studio Bubl. They call their iPad app a virtual rattle, but that does the experience no justice. In reality, Bubl Tap feels like a piece of Japanese pop art come to life, mixed with a heavy dose of abstract art. Its creators cite everything from Kandinsky to Sesame Street as informing the visual design, and you can absolutely sense that.
"We wanted to create a feeling of exploration and excitement, surprise," explains Bubl's CEO Oleg Stavitsky. "We have created an environment to explore and play with: Wherever you tap, something happens. You shake your iPad, something happens. You try to play carefully and see the connections between stages, forms, and reactions, you'll be rewarded for your attentiveness."
Indeed, it’s easy to be distracted by the obvious, all of the geometric forms bursting forth from your fingertips. But when you observe more closely, you discover surprises within the interface. For instance, as I was popping a mass of bubbles, I tilted my iPad just a bit. And that’s when I realized this scene had been rendered in parallax—meaning that as I turned my iPad, I could look around the 2-D image as if it were a real object.
There’s just one problem I have with Bubl Tap: Its designers truly see it as a product "for babies."
"There's science and research behind it: actually, small babies' vision works that way that they better perceive contrast colors and clean geometric shapes," Stavitsky argues. "And we gently introduce sound and interactivity to that equation, having them see the connection between form, shape, sound, and action. Our apps stimulate creativity, they're not mindless entertainment."
However true these points may be, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you keep children under two years of age away from screens. (Though, admittedly, whether that screen is different if used passively or interactively is a bit up for debate.) In addition to the doctors, other experts agree: Design studio Ideo and the toy brand LeapFrog—both of whom perform a multitude of internal research and could easily profit off of kid tablets—have pledged not to develop screen-based products for children 18 months and under.
The general logic behind bans seems to make sense. A baby needs to learn how the analog world works, and that world is grounded in real objects that operate with real physics, rather than the coded whims of app developers. For as much as I enjoy the unpredictably whimsical physics inside Bubl Tap, the core of my consciousness already understands inertia and gravity, and I’m old enough to recognize that when I touch real objects, squiggles won’t erupt from my fingers.
That said, I won’t argue with the superb competency inside Bubl Tap. I can’t wait to share it with my own baby—but I’ll hold off until he's a toddler.