A group of children file into the room and quickly take a seat around a colorful circular carpet. Their excitement is contagious as whispers and giggles fill the air. Hidden within the classroom is Lyka, a little robot scientist with a big heart who also happens to be an interactive plush. She has traveled more than 20,000 miles and visited 68 cities since arriving on Earth. On a mission to save her home, Lyka is enlisting the help of students around the world. And on this particular morning, her traveling lab has stopped by Rosetta Primary School in Hobart, Tasmania.
As a discovery-based learning experience that includes an eight-book series, an interactive plush toy and the traveling labs, Lyka’s Adventure is on a mission to make science fun while teaching students empathy, coding, rapid prototyping and collaborative problem-solving. The Lyka’s Adventure labs not only teach students science, coding and storytelling, but they also serve as an R&D space to help us design in a way that reflects our core audiences’ needs. We see directly what works and what doesn’t—plus we are able to design with the children, as opposed to designing in a vacuum and assuming we know what works for them.
An evolving approach
In many ways, Lyka’s Adventure embodies a change in how I approach the development and creation of media and intellectual property. Over the course of my career, I’ve written, directed and produced films and television shows, designed games, staged live events and built software. Balancing story and software development, in particular, is a recurring challenge—the two often clash due to conflicting timetables and communication hurdles that arise between diverse teams.
So when it came time to build a toy and media company for this century, the design of the operation needed to reflect the times. At Connected Sparks, we strive to create toys and stories with passion and purpose. We build storyworlds that become educational ecosystems. Our mission is to create immersive experiences that ignite imaginations, open the design process and embrace shifts in media consumption.
But the creation of Lyka’s Adventure was, in fact, fueled by a simple observation. After a Sunday family dinner, my mother ventured over to the couch to teach my son to read. The part of their otherwise age-old exchange that struck me as unusual was that my son (who was four at the time) was teaching his grandmother how to use the tablet that housed the eBook they were reading. I found this cross-generational transfer of knowledge fascinating, and within a few weeks I assembled a team to stage a hackathon to explore the concept.
It’s normal for Connected Sparks to launch projects through an immersive lab or hack that brings together a team with varied backgrounds. Over the years, I’ve seen my core collaborators grow to include creative technologists, data scientists, user-experience (UX) specialists and researchers. And the most interesting ideas rest at the edges of these diverse perspectives and within the resulting friction created between disciplines and skills. These 21st-century writers rooms recognize that story can influence code/product development and vice versa. (This principal is also at the heart of a digital storytelling lab I have been developing at Columbia University in New York. Within the lab we experiment with ways in which story can help to drive innovation, bridge silos and aid diverse teams.)
Beyond the focus group
We often employ a designing “with” and “for” process that places our story and code directly in the hands of our target audience. While other industries commonly engage in R&D, this method is rarely utilized within the entertainment industry. For instance, the industry will spend time rewriting a script and then focus-test a film just prior to releasing it. But the only time it touches an audience is at the very end of the process, when it is often too late to make any changes.
For the past three years, we’ve been prototyping Lyka and her storyworld with children and parents around the globe. We’ve worked hard to place Lyka in environments that challenge our toys, stories and code. The results have helped us improve our products. But it’s important to note that our prototyping sessions should not be equated to focus groups.
Unlike traditional focus groups, we don’t create something in a vacuum and then place it in the hands of the audience to obtain feedback. Instead, we rapidly prototype concepts in a way that invites those participating in the sessions to become collaborators in the design process and not remain a largely passive audience. (A by-product of the connected world that we inhabit is the evolution of the audience. Many of its members have become their own media companies, thanks to the ability of social media and push-button publishing to get their message out easily and cheaply.)
We have found that failing quickly—and learning from it—enriches the quality of what we’re building. In a sense, it is a form of re-writing. For instance, in the fall of 2011, we staged a beta test with an early version of the Lyka toy that included a number of sensors to measure geolocation and temperature. The data collected by Lyka would be pushed back to students.
Two classrooms, one in L.A. and the other in Montreal, Canada, worked together to move Lyka across North America. The students’ imaginations and curriculum determined where she traveled. The test concluded with a weather balloon launch that sent our attached Lyka toy prototype 90,000 feet above Earth to the edge of the atmosphere.
The beta test provided valuable insight into what the children found engaging and what they did not. While we could have easily documented Lyka’s travels and skyward ascent by compositing green-screen footage against stock backgrounds, the fact that she was actually out in the real world was thrilling for the students.
Additionally, the trip yielded a variety of assets (photos, video, stories, artwork) that we are still using today. Outside of its benefits for our development process, the beta test helped attract the interest of publisher Penguin. Intrigued by the innovative nature of the project, Penguin inked a deal with Connected Sparks that enabled collaboration on a second-screen reading application, as well as the release of the Lyka’s Adventure as a book series, interactive toy and series of traveling educational labs into multiple territories, including the US, UK, Australia, Germany, France, China, Korea and Japan.
Sticking to experimentation
Back at Rosetta Primary School, a young boy has managed to discover Lyka’s whereabouts. He hoists her up into the air while every one of his classmates surround him in an effort to touch her. As the students return and sit down, I ask if the class is ready to help Lyka save her home planet. The room erupts in a resounding collective “Yes!” Moments later, the children begin working in teams to aid their new friend, and the classroom transforms into a collaborative problem-solving space right before our eyes.
But the students are not the only ones learning. As I look around the room, I’m struck by the fact that we’ve created the same type of cross-generational knowledge exchange that inspired the project in the first place. My team and I are learning every time we run a lab. We’re able to experiment and try new things in an effort to improve the design and educational value of what we’re building. And we have found an R&D space that is brutally honest in its response. As I assist one of the students with the rocket she’s building to help Lyka return home, I ask her what she thinks is important for Lyka to learn on Earth. Without missing a beat, she says, “Mistakes are welcome—because that is how you learn.”
Lyka’s Adventure is an ongoing experiment, an ambitious storyworld that spills off pages, screens and into the real world. By opening our design process we hope to build quality products with passion and purpose because this adventure is not about the destination but the journey.
Lance Weiler is a co-founder of Connected Sparks (www.connectedsparks.com), a company that creates toys and stories with passion and purpose. Lyka’s Adventure is the company’s first product release. Named by BusinessWeek as one of the 18 who changed Hollywood, Lance teaches at Columbia University, sits on a steering committee for the World Economic Forum on the future of entertainment, and has worked with the UN, UNICEF and others on initiatives that mix storytelling, technology and social good.