Nokia has teamed up with Sesame Street to create an interactive reading experience that can involve grandparents and grandchildren no matter how far apart they may find themselves. The Storybook research project melds the tactile and visual pleasures of reading a real book with video conferencing technology which allows distant relatives to take an active part in a child's literacy development.
As well as having the most time to invest, young children and grandparents also tend to have a strong desire to communicate with each other. Unfortunately, as families spread out over the country or beyond, time with loved ones can become infrequent or even awkward. Often hampered by complicated technology (such as online video-conferencing software) or limited by the kind of simple language inevitable in telephone conversations with young children, families separated by distance need a 21st Century solution that's stimulating for the youngsters and easy to use.
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Researchers from Nokia's Research Center have been working with the Sesame Street Workshop to develop an interactive learning experience that grandparents and young children can enjoy no matter the distance between them. The Storybook features a wooden frame that opens out like a book. The frame contains sensors that detect the title and open page of a real story book placed on it.
Above the book placement area are two touchscreen, Linux-powered Internet tablets. These house a webcam, speakers and a microphone. They're connected to each other via Bluetooth and to the page sensing hardware via USB. The left screen is for Sesame Street character Elmo and the right screen features a "custom GUI video conferencing application built with PyQT and the open-source telepathy stack."
The system automatically logs a user into the video conferencing system but includes limits on who can be contacted so that a toddler won't be able to accidentally contact the White House for an impromptu reading session with the President. Contacts are displayed as image icons on the screen and calls are made by touching the icon. Calls are received by opening the book and touching the icon of the incoming caller.
Elmo is on hand at all times, initially to get things started by offering instructions on how to operate the system and then as a listener and story dialogue catalyst and a means of keeping the young child focused. When two Storybook's are connected, the child (with the aid of an adult) follows what the reader is saying in the real book. The screen indicates what page the reader is on and alerts the listener when a page has been turned.
At various points throughout a story, a thought bubble will appear in Elmo's window. Touching this will generate a discussion point, Elmo might remark "Woah! Look at how big those letters are! How do you think Grover feels?" and the reader and listener can exchange dialogue.
The adult version of the reader includes special coaching material to help get the most out of the experience and help the child develop, including a video from Sesame Street's Maria and special reading tips in the story book itself.
Edutaining the young ones
The Storybook concept combines elements of learning and play in much the same way as tried and tested edutainment teaching methods such as those offered by TV programs like Sesame Street. It's offered in an easy-to use interface which should engage, entertain and happily fit in with the normal family reading rituals involving 2-3 year-olds, such as reading before bed.
A limited trial of the prototype concluded that child participants preferred the experience offered by the Storybook format while adults found the large screen possibilities offered by computer-based video conference suited them better. So future incarnations of the concept would likely look towards developing interactive desktop software to complement the Storybook that will enable both parties to fully enjoy the experience.
Whether the Storybook concept will ever reach the marketplace is not known. The project has yielded some interesting results and no doubt given Nokia lots to think about: "This initial study with Sesame Workshop helps us better understand these interactions particularly with family communications," said John Shen, lab director at the Nokia Research Center.