AI Storytelling Bridges The Generation Gap
In decades gone by grandparents could only dream of being able to video-call their grandchildren.
Today the reality is that they can, readily and for free. But the experience is often a disappointment.
Kids fidget, lose interest, get hungry, wander off, fail to engage. In short they just aren’t great at talking to a screen.
Zoog, an Israeli startup, has come up with an engaging and structured way to bridge the generation gap.
Grandparents record themselves reading a short chapter of a story, singing songs or nursery rhymes, telling a joke, or relating a fun fact. Augmented reality (AR) brings the experience to life with animated effects, a backing track, or sound effects.
They then send it, just like a text message, to the grandchild, who can watch it, save it and watch it again.
Co-founders Yoav Oren and Matan Guttman came up with the idea as the Covid pandemic forced the world to embrace video-calls as never before.
“We’re both parents of young children. Once the pandemic hit, all communication became remote,” says Oren.
“We quickly realized that trying to get our kids to communicate online, via phone or video traditional video calls with their grandparents, was an awful experience.
“Our kids couldn’t handle small talk conversations at all, they found these conversations incredibly boring and repetitive, and just weren’t engaged or captivated in any way.
“On the flip side, it created this frustrating situation for their grandparents, who wanted to have a relationship with them, but couldn’t really, really find the ways to do so.”
Grandparents who sign up for Zoog choose from a constantly expanding library of hundreds of storybooks, songs, jokes, greetings, and other “magical creations” aimed at kids aged one to nine.
They make a quick recording on their smartphone or other device, usually lasting no more than a minute and a half.
Behind the scenes a team of illustrators, animators and AR experts have added a whole raft of special effects that kick in automatically.
So it’s a fun and engaging experience for both the grandparent and the grandchild.
Grandparents typically send three or four recordings a week, so it becomes a way of staying in regular contact with their grandchildren.
Oren and Guttman decided early on against a real-time system, which would put grandparent and grandchild in face-to-face contact.
That’s a popular route for rival offerings, such as Caribu which has many more titles than Zoog, as well as games, but none of the AR elements.
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So grandparents who use Zoog miss out on the moment when their grandchild’s face (hopefully) lights up. But Oren says the advantages of their asynchronous communication more than make up for that.
“Grandparents say what we provide gives them the ability to record whenever they want, to be able to share it whenever they want, and to let their grandchildren view it as many times as they want, without distractions,” he says.
Even very young children expect high production values, which is why Zoog invests heavily in creating experiences they’ll find exciting.
“The level of stimulation that children have today from media is off the charts. And anything short of that just simply won’t cut it,” says Oren.
“But you also have to have something that is approachable, that is intuitive, so even grandparents can work with. And this is where the idea of merging creativity or content with communication came about.
“The idea was to see how we can create a super compelling, interesting, immersive experience for kids.
“The number one activity that grandparents like to do with their grandkids is reading stories. It gives them a very clear idea of what they’re supposed to be doing at any given point.
“With Zoog you become Mozart or Winnie the Pooh, or Cinderella. And all you need to do as a reader is to press record. As you progress on the story, we automatically change the AR filters and masks, we change the animations in the background, we add a soundtrack here and a bunch of other visual overlays.”
There are 70 million grandparents in the US alone, and even without Covid the vast majority of them only get to see their grandchildren twice a year. But they spend over $179 billion a year on gifts for them, says Oren.
So he’s tapping into a lucrative market. Zoog is a downloadable app that charges a monthly subscription.
“Our nursery rhymes have been performing exceptionally well,” says Oren. “You have an AR version of Baby Shark, Row Your Boat, Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and Old MacDonald Had a Farm.
“You get to be a character in each one of these. We also have our classics, so we have Winnie the Pooh, Humpty Dumpty, which are performing very well, and so is Gabby’s Dollhouse, from Dreamworks. And we also do a whole category of dad jokes, which children really enjoy.”
For the future, Zoog hasn’t ruled out introducing a real-time element of communication, in addition to recordings.
“We don’t want people to read a book on Zoog, and then hop on a Whatsapp call or a FaceTime call. We want all that family communication to happen on Zoog,” says Oren.
The company is also looking to target other English-speaking markets beyond the US, and to translate its content into other languages.