Augmented reality, voice commands and the future

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How much technology is too much for young users? It’s a question that many parents have struggled with, especially since the pandemic hit.

You want to give them the opportunities that technology can bring, but you also want to protect them from its worst effects.

It starts at the cradle. Connected baby monitors that allow parents to monitor their baby wherever they are in the world. Wi-Fi connected toys that teach but could also pose a potential privacy and security issue.

And then there are the ubiquitous smartphones and tablets, and the apps that teach our children while entertaining them.

The reality is that we cannot stop the march of technology into our children’s lives. The pandemic has shown how vital technology has become, with work, education, and social interaction all happening through the internet.

How can we introduce it safely and in an age-appropriate way for our children?

This was a concern for the founders of Irish toy company HoloToyz. He was born in the pandemic, he uses augmented reality to create interactive experiences for children. The product line includes books, wall decals, tattoos and stickers featuring everything from monster trucks and dinosaurs to pets and unicorns that come to life through the use of a smartphone app or Tablet.

Founded by husband-and-wife team Declan Fahy and Kate Scott with a business partner, it secured early investment from Molten Ventures’ Brian Caulfield, Irish tech veteran John Herlihy and Tokyo-based angel investor Pat Ryan. . a personal investment from Garry Lyons, founder of Shipyard Technology Ventures and it is one of Enterprise Ireland’s high potential start-ups.

“In this company, we are parents first and business people second. What we’re trying to do is improve on traditional toys to make them more suitable for how kids interact with technology,” Fahy said. “We never want to take. We always want to improve and that’s the whole mantra behind the company. »

This means that books, for example, will always have carefully crafted, colorful and kid-friendly visuals. Add the HoloToyz with characters that come to life with a few taps or swipes on the screen as the text on the pages is read to the child. It is both entertaining and educational, and open to children of all ages and abilities.

“We have big plans for the future to create more educational content,” Scott said. “For a young child to be able to immersively see 3D animation come to life makes the learning experience much more exciting.”

There are already future plans underway. The company has struck a deal to produce licensed content from Nickelodeon, a move that will see characters such as Paw Patrol come to the HoloToyz platform.

Data and Identity

From a parent’s perspective, there are several interesting things about HoloToyz. First, there’s the price: nothing costs more than €30. Then there’s the fact that the app doesn’t focus on collecting personal data – you don’t create an account or hand over credentials.

HoloToyz is poised to take advantage of an expected augmented reality boom, and by targeting the younger age group, it hopes to gain traction in a market that hasn’t been a real focus for the technology. Fahy notes that while the company isn’t the first toymaker to try augmented reality, it has learned from those before it.

“Whenever we hear about augmented reality advancements in this game and this technology, it’s in all serious industries,” Scott said. “We forget that this generation is going to be the most educated generation ever because of the likes of this technology. We’re talking to this young demographic and in a very safe way at a time that’s perfect for their learning curve because they’re going to grow up with this technology anyway. And now is the perfect time for them to experiment with us, safely.

Kidtech may be a growing business, but it’s also a tough business. There are regulations for browsing, including the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act in the United States, particularly around the handling of private data. In some cases, companies cannot collect any data about their users.

The value of getting it right is reflected in some of the deals in the industry. Gamesmaker Epic spent millions of dollars to acquire SuperAwesome, founded by Irish entrepreneur Dylan Collins, in 2020. With that deal came the company’s kid-safe marketing platform that enables brands to reach consumers between 6 and 16 years old.

Although no financial details were released, SuperAwesome was valued at more than $100 million (€89.6 million) after a funding round in 2018, attracting backers including Microsoft. It also signed a major agreement with the world’s largest advertising company, WPP, to better protect children online, making all of its kidtech tools and products available to WPP agencies around the world. The advertising industry is beginning to realize the potential of the sector.

Online interaction

There are more technologies to come that parents will have to manage. The metaverse, for example, is shaping up to be the future of how we will interact online. And a lot of how it will work will depend on voice commands, something Irish company Soapbox Labs are familiar with.

Founded by Dr. Patricia Scanlon in 2013, it works on the use of technology for children.

“We are starting to think of this generation as voice natives; they don’t have the inhibitions that we have,” says Dr. Scanlon. “If you think back to every vision of the future of technology – in Star Trek or something like that – it was always using voice because voice is the natural interface.”

Soapbox Labs spent several years perfecting the technology to work with children’s voices, which was a challenge in itself.

“They are physically very different. This means that their speech sounds different from a machine,” says Dr. Scanlon. “Their behaviors are different. Because they tend to shout, whisper, sing, repeat, pause too much, the system keeps thinking they’re done when they aren’t. But they don’t follow language rules either, and a lot of the progress in the last decade, in particular, has been in predicting what someone says based on what people normally say, the way the rules languages ​​are respected.

“As a result, you find people who look like kids or other difficult demographics, like someone learning a language, may not follow the rules, and so the system often gets it wrong.

“We had to redesign almost every part of the system and build things differently to help people who would have built them for adults because kids don’t always pronounce everything correctly.”

Unbiased Software

Soapbox Labs technology is now used in a range of applications, from education to play, helping to screen children for dyslexia or helping teachers determine reading levels. The company started in education and set the bar, says Dr. Scanlon, because it wanted to be able to work for all children between the ages of 2 and 12, in real sound environments. Another important consideration is bias. Dr Scanlan says the company has worked hard to try to ensure that the software is as unbiased as possible and performs as well as a human assessor, both from an efficiency standpoint and to help rather than to work against children. Big tech is littered with stories of inaccurate algorithms working against people from different cultures. Soapbox was aware of the potential damage that bias could cause in the classroom.

“You’re essentially reinforcing inequalities that already exist,” says Dr Scanlon. “Part of our mission is to make sure this is available to everyone, that it works well for everyone. You have to keep an eye on that; it’s been an ongoing effort for years. It’s not like we could fix it in 2016 and then ignore the system.

Soapbox also sees a role for its technology in protecting children, through the use of its technology to verify age.

“I don’t think we’re going to shut down the Metaverse. It’s one of those things that if we stick our heads in the sand and say ‘this is wrong, we shouldn’t allow our children to do this’, we miss an opportunity to make them safer now” , says Dr. Scanlon. “That’s where I hope the legislation will come in and force people to use the tools that already exist, you know, and Soapbox is right in that space to be able to protect children. We use our technology to be able to do this.


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