A new device called Osmo aims to change the way tablets are used for gaming by expanding play beyond the screen.
Osmo — the work of a startup called Tangible Play — is a collection of kid-friendly gaming apps and peripherals that attach to the iPad. Using a small mirror, Osmo redirects the iPad camera's view, opening up the area in front of it for play and freeing control from the iPad's screen. According to Tangible Play CEO and co-founder Pramod Sharma, this makes every game a social experience.
"In Osmo, there's no constraint," Sharma told Polygon. "You can start thinking in a way you can't do [in games right now]. The idea behind Osmo is 'how do we bring real-world interaction, social interaction, into the iPad or any digital domain?'"
Sharma, a former Google employee, answered this question with three of Osmo's games: Newton, Tangram and Words. Tangram will feel familiar to anyone who's ever played the physical version of the pattern-based game. Players select a pattern on-screen — from geometric animals to abstract shapes — and attempt to reassemble the silhouette with 3D shapes in front of them. Osmo's word guessing game, aptly named Words, operates on a similar basis. Players are given a picture hint and left to throw letter tiles in front of the iPad as quickly as possible to piece together the correct word. Kids can play one-on-one, but Sharma encourages users to pile into teams and toss letters "fast and furious."
"It's more of a creative experience than just a constant game."
Osmo's best example of gaming without constraints, however, is Newton. By redirecting the iPad camera, it allows the device to read 3D objects or hand-drawn lines and translate them to the game's on-screen gameplay. The goal is to bounce falling balls into targets by creating some kind of barrier — a line, a pair of keys, your hand.
"Everyone has a different idea [about what to use]," Sharma said. "It's more of a creative experience than just a constant game."
By allowing people to use whatever items they want, he continued, Osmo is effectively discarding the barriers of a controller. It's a natural user interface that allows people to play however they want, rather than simply how they're able to.
"How do you teach kids to be creative?"
Osmo is already being tested in local San Francisco schools, though education was never Tangible Play's primary goal. According to Sharma, teachers find the device useful because it helps build creative thinking and emotional growth. Even if technology can eventually automate everyday tasks, there are still basic skills machines can't replicate.
"One is the social and emotional learning," Sharma said. "How do we connect with people? There's a skill required in that. That's fundamental for anyone. In school, they don't know how to teach those kids.
"The second one is creative, out of the box thinking. How do you teach kids to be creative? The theory [from educators] is when you're using a device, or any gaming device, you're creatively always a function of what the device lets you do. The Wii, for example, you can do only a constraint of what the controller is. You cannot go beyond this."
Although early version of Osmo have already been distributed among select schools, Tangible Play has yet to launch the device in full. The company launched a crowdfunding campaign seeking $50,000 today to raise money for manufacturing a full line.
"I want to build a Pixar experience, a Pixar level of story and fun, and Apple label of design," Sharma said. "I want to bring these two things together."