Web hub Club Penguin has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s possible to make a solid business out of providing kids with a space to play games and gab with each other online – just ask Disney, which recently acquired the site for US$350 million. And Zula USA has partnered with IBM (yes, that IBM) to go down the same path and hopefully help turn kids on to math, science and technology at the same time.
Come December, the two companies are launching ZulaWorld, an immersive virtual world built around CGI series Zula Patrol. The venture marks an important first for IBM. Sure, the Armonk, New York-based computer tech conglom has built virtual environments for retailers Sears and Circuit City that plug into adult game Second Life, but ZulaWorld is being constructed from the ground up. According to Linda Ban, a client and program strategy executive at IBM, the company has a corporate mandate to foster math and science knowledge amongst kids, and the edutainment approach Zula Patrol applies to science learning fits perfectly with that goal.
Designed to appeal to kids in the pre-kindergarten to grade three range, as well as their teachers and parents, the sprawling site will have multiple points of entry for users and layered content to meet the developmental needs of kids at different stages. So, there will be big-picture, simplistic activities and content for the under-five set, and then more detailed and information-heavy challenges for older kids. Ban says the emphasis is on fun, and the site will be constantly refreshed with new information, games and patrol missions to keep kids coming back. Educators and teachers, meanwhile, will have access to a virtual world that promotes lesson planning and global communication, and parents can tap into a number of different website controls.
As for its business model, ZulaWorld won’t be ad-supported, but it will have a subscription component. Zula USA president and CEO Dr. Deborah Manchester says the split between free and paid access has yet to be determined.
ZulaWorld’s first phase is launching in English. Both IBM and Manchester believe that the TV series’ penetration into 72 million US households on 75% of PBS affiliates, coupled with US planetarium shows, education outreach initiatives and a recent deal that will see Canadian preschool net Treehouse TV strip the show this fall, should give the site a good head start in North America.
But the joint-venture isn’t stopping there; IBM and Zula want to make the site truly global. Thanks to series distributor MarVista Entertainment, the TV show is currently airing in 40 Latin American countries, so a Spanish version of ZulaWorld is in the works.
And Zula’s educational publishing partner, Chartwell Education, is taking the property into China. Building on a Chinese broadcast deal for the series, Chartwell will start testing Zula pre-kindergarten educational materials in 20 Beijing schools this January. If all goes well, the in-school program will then roll out across China, creating an entrée for a Chinese version of ZulaWorld.