What if you could give your child an iPad for an hour and not feel guilty about it? In parenting circles, screen time philosophies can fiercely divide otherwise allied moms and dads. Doctrines range from the laissez-faire screens-aren’t-going-anywhere types to the über-strict, almost Amish in sensibility—a group that The New York Times recently revealed even includes many Silicon Valley parents. Enter Within, a Los Angeles–based tech company that has built an app it believes can change the screen time paradigm. Launching on November 14 for children ages 7 and up, Wonderscope is an augmented reality app that aims to reimagine children’s literature by engaging, mobilizing, and empowering its narrator, all while building confidence in reading aloud.
Virtual reality has been in the lexicon for a generation, but its younger cousin, augmented reality, or AR, has recently elbowed its way into the tech spotlight. Coined by aviation expert Tom Caudell, AR is a technology in which virtual graphics are overlaid onto physical reality: Snapchat filters, Pokémon GO, and apps like Ikea Place and Tape Measure all use AR, and after Apple announced its ARKit in 2017, AR apps have been released in industries that range from fitness to beauty to interiors.
Within is known primarily for its immersive storytelling capabilities (ranging from the hyper-imaginative to documentary) in VR. Its office in Culver City, California, is everything you’d expect from a Silicon Beach tech company—Aztec-printed pillows nestled on a black chesterfield sofa, exposed ceilings, Noguchi coffee tables, beer on tap, open layouts of standing desks, an office dog, and, yes, a few hoodies. But while the office is hip and the company is backed by venture capital money, it says that its mission is ultimately altruistic, and its first entrée into AR is no exception.
Within’s CEO and cofounder, Chris Milk, mined his own childhood for inspiration as he brainstormed what kind of an AR app to develop. As a kid, Milk suffered from dyslexia and struggled with reading. “It wasn’t called a learning disability then; it was just called dumb,” Milk said. His grandmother, a child psychologist, tutored him with eye exercises and by immersing him in children’s literature. Milk soon fell in love with the fantastical worlds of Dr. Seuss and Daniel Pinkwater, and credits them for helping him overcome his dyslexia.
Wonderscope wants to be a downloadable version of that devoted figure for children today, pairing the captivating nature of AR with voice-recognition technology to help children read aloud. The idea, says Milk, is essentially to create screen time that parents can feel good about. “We all feel the magnetism of devices and screens; everything is sucking you in and shutting out the world around you. AR opens up the world. Your device becomes a magical lens that you’re looking at the world through, which can be an ideal setting for kids to learn,” Milk said.
Here’s how it works: With Wonderscope, a child looks through an iPad or iPhone running on iOS 11 or newer (ARKit apps are currently available on Apple devices only) and sees his kitchen table or living room floor, but once a Wonderscope story launches, that kitchen table will come to life. Intricate scenes appear with characters who start talking to the user, asking questions and making jokes. When words appear on the screen and are read aloud, the narrative advances, empowering kids to navigate their own journey. As their adventure continues, kids might start crawling around looking for new characters or moving around a room searching for hidden items and new scenes.
The first two stories from Wonderscope are Little Red the Inventor and Amazing Stunts (both were developed in house in collaboration with Nexus Studios and Preloaded, respectively). The first is a twist on Little Red Riding Hood that flips the script—no longer a victim, the protagonist is a clever and capable girl who saves her grandmother from the wolf. Stunts is a nonfiction story that features three eccentric 20th-century daredevils who perform their death-defying acts with the help of the reader. Stories are about 10 minutes each, with a third story slated to launch later this year. (The Wonderscope app is free to download and includes one free story; additional stories are $4.99.)
Whether this app is truly healthy screen time is impossible to measure. Every generation of parents worries their kids are being destroyed by new technology and the habits it produces. The difference today, however, is that much of the current technology marketed for kids doesn’t suspend belief like it did in generations past with plumber brothers and rudimentary pong paddles. Today’s technology marketed to kids is often a hyperrealistic movie-quality production that tends to focus on war, violence, and crime, or designed to addict and generate regular revenue with in-app purchases. “It’s a little spooky, because we don’t know what the impact of this heavy conditioning is. That’s why we want to do it differently and with empathy. Let’s access the better angel emotions that make us stronger, smarter, and better. It’s a huge opportunity,” Within’s COO, Colin Decker, said.
Perhaps as AR becomes more commonplace, developers like Within will shepherd in a new era of wholesome screen time for kids that can be enjoyed with others and involve movement, reading, and discovery. Whether it will come to replace old-fashioned story time remains to be seen, but as screens aren’t going anywhere soon, an app that makes kids smile and feel confident as they read absolutely feels like a win.