In the tech world, there’s always the promise of “the next big thing.” But from flying cars to virtual reality, Silicon Valley is littered with great ideas that just aren’t really taking off. As kidtech has remained laser-focused on all things coding and augmented reality for the past couple of years, it is poised for a shakeup. Among all the noise and promises, the latest offering to try and break into the mainstream is blockchain.
While most people have heard of the behind-the-scenes network powering the finance and tech sectors, few outside of those arenas actually understand it. However, there are a handful players in the kids media business trying to push the idea into the mainstream.
But first, everyone has to figure out what blockchain actually is.
At its simplest, a blockchain is a digital ledger that tracks transactions. These ledgers are typically decentralized and publically viewable (though there are both private and centralized versions), and people will often use them to track and trade digital assets and currency. (See our handy glossary for more.) A recent report published by the International Data Corporation predicts spending on blockchain will grow annually at a rate of 75% through to 2022. Analysts at the firm said spending on projects in the blockchain industry would hit US$11.7 billion by 2022, compared to the US$1.5 billion expected to be spent this year.
Despite financial gains, the problem with awareness persists. A recent study from UK-based bank HSBC found that 59% of consumers polled globally said they’d never heard of blockchain technology, and 80% of those who had heard of the tech didn’t understand what it was.
“That’s the tricky thing when it comes to mass-market acceptance: blockchain and block mining and a lot of the other elements of the chain itself are so new, that unless you happen to be into tech or in the know, the elements of how you use it are really ethereal and mythic,” says Jeff Haynes, senior editor for web and video games at Common Sense Media.
Haynes has his doubts that this kind of technology will take off because of that large barrier to entry. In order for kids to want to play with the tech, they—and their parents, for that matter—need to understand it on at least a base level. Beyond that, he points out that companies that want to get into the space also need to tell people why they should care about something that seems as abstract as Bitcoin or block mining.
“Until one company comes along with an app, game or product [that can] explain Blockchain to everybody, it’s going to be a little bit tricky to see mass successes,” says Haynes.
From wands to robots to apps to games, teaching kids coding basics has been seen as the best way to get them into the STEM field, with kidtech companies shifting even the most unique offerings to include an element of science. But with the introduction of blockchain, and as it filters down to the youngest generation, this could be a new way to bring kids into the fold. And Haynes notes, there’s no harm in a kids book that explains what the concepts are to tech-savvy kids.
This is where Brett Biery, author and illustrator of the books A Place in the Blockchain and Blocky Explains Blockchain, comes in. Aimed at kids ages three to six and available as eBooks and in hard-copy form on Amazon, the two picture books take a creative and simplistic approach to explaining the complicated tech.
“I have a four-year-old daughter, and I always wish there were more technology-related books for kids,” says Biery. “I work as a software developer and I’ve always been interested in blockchain. During one of our [father-daughter] drawing sessions together, I drew out a little block with an open mouth and developed a story from there.”
A Place in the Blockchain follows a small block that tries to find its way among a chain of its peers, confronting obstacles along the way. The story was meant to teach his daughter about overcoming adversity, but it takes place in a blockchain ecosystem.
Following the release of the first book, people began requesting that Biery explain the concepts to their kids, so he wrote Blocky Explains Blockchain.
“It’s not like you’re going to be coding blockchain after you’re done [reading] it,” he says. “But you’ll understand what’s happening in the background on a technical basis.”
While he created these books, Biery notes it might not be necessary for kids to understand blockchain technology itself—the way that no child needs to understand the fundamentals of how the backend of the internet works.
When people think of the internet, rarely do they think of a bunch of tech guys sitting in a room around whirring hard drives. They think of YouTube or Twitter. Likewise, blockchain is just a ledger that other things will be built on top of in the future.
The book goes a long way in explaining blockchain at a base level to kids, but the next step is actually diving in and being able to use it. So far, the closest to mainstream success any company has gotten is CryptoKitties.
The Vancouver, Canada-based company created a type of collectible asset, which has been dubbed this generation’s Beanie Babies. While users need cryptocurrency to buy each cat, the feline itself is a non-currency token that can be collected, traded and bred to create new species with different attributes. The CryptoKitties themselves can be as simple as a pink feline with a white stomach and paws, or as complicated as Catburry, a slowly melting cat made of chocolate.
It’s one of the world’s first games built on blockchain and uses the Ethereum network and the cryptocurrency ether. Users are able to buy, sell and trade the felines in hopes of getting rare versions. The average cat costs US$1-US$2, but CryptoKitties have sold for up to six figures, with the most expensive ever
“It’s like any collectible, any piece of art—the value is anything from a personal connection, to the [actual] value of what makes it up, to the perceived value from the community,” says Bryce Bladon, a founding team member and director of communications at CryptoKitties.
CryptoKitties launched in 2017 with a mission to appeal to people outside of the core blockchain base and bring the technology to the wider world. It now has more than 1.5 million wallet addresses (the digital purse used to buy any cryptocurrency product) and hundreds of thousands of registered users.
Bladon notes that lots of kids are playing the game, but stresses that, as with anything involving money and the internet, kids are encouraged to play with their parents. A major reason the game was launched was to bring blockchain into the mainstream, and he sees kids as the ones who will really help.
“If kids grab on to this tech and understand it, they’re going to be more empowered to shape it, and that means only good things to me,” says Bladon. “Kids are almost always the first ones to figure out new technology because they don’t come in with existing preconceptions.”
While Bladon has a positive view of the technology and its future with kids, he notes it still faces two main challenges: scalability and user experience.
“Until a lot of people can use the technology without [it] breaking down, in such a way that the blockchain element isn’t a selling point but rather an implicit part of [of the experience] and the process is easy, we’re still a few steps away from widespread mainstream adoption,” says Bladon.
Trying to entirely sidestep the difficult task of explaining blockchain to its users is Massachusetts-based 18moons, which launched Planet Kids Coin, a new cryptocurrency on its own blockchain network, earlier this year.
Planet Kids Coin removes the largest barrier to entry by having consumers never actually see or interact with cryptocurrency. Instead, the user pays 18moons in whatever IRL global currency they choose. In turn, they get access to kids media the company has licensed from the likes of Big Bad Boo Studios, K’NEX, Kelloggs and BoxTrolls. 18moons pays its more than 100 small producers for what’s downloaded in the Planet Kids Coin cryptocurrency. Currently in the proof-of-concept stage, 18moons will launch the coin next year.
Beyond the fact that this creates global audience potential for smaller regional players—now able to tap into viewers in far-flung nations without having to go through traditional gatekeepers—the handy part about blockchain for this kind of distribution model is that it acts as an accurate ledger that shows content providers exactly how their content is being used and how it changed hands, without revealing any child’s personal information.
Right now, 18moons president Eduardo Mace says he’s having a problem getting bigger content providers on board because they don’t entirely understand blockchain and are wary of the new technology.
“We’re trying to simplify [the experience] enough and [to build] a use case that is especially meaningful for our market,” he says.
Looking ahead, another part of the children’s industry that could greatly benefit from this tech is physical toys. Although it seems counter-intuitive for a physical item to flourish online thanks to blockchain, Shidan Gouran, CEO of Toronto, Canada-based Global Blockchain Technology, points out the technology could give toycos unprecedented access to information about their products—no matter where in the world it resides.
“Imagine you have this database [for tracking] a toy with a microchip in it that identifies what it is and where it has come from. Every time you sell that or give it to somebody, it’s recorded in the database,” says Gouran.
Through blockchain, toycos could track whether something is a legitimate product and limit counterfeit goods as well as reduce theft, he says.
On top of that, the whole supply chain could be accounted for. Companies could, in theory, track everything that’s gone into a toy across borders—where it was created, where it was put on the shelf, what kind of plastic went into the product, if it meets the requirements for entering a country or not.
Although Gouran is skeptical about applications directly aimed at kids, he believes wholeheartedly in how this could help the backend of the industry.
“I think in the next five years you’re really going to see it permeate everything,” says Gouran.
A digital ledger that tracks transactions for assets and currency, and keeps a record of all of the information about a given item. While the most popular blockchains are decentralized and public, there are also private centralized systems.
A digital or virtual currency or asset that is decentralized and distributed, typically through blockchain. To gain a cryptocurrency, people either buy from other users or “mine” it.
Solving a math problem to be rewarded with a cryptocurrency. If you or your program manages to solve the problem before anybody else in the world, then the network that block is on recognizes this achievement and you get paid a certain amount of cryptocurrency.
The best-known cryptocurrency, originally launched in 2009. Since then, 4,000 alternative cryptocurrency coins have been created.
A type or network of blockchain. Other networks include Bitcoin and Ripple.
The cryptocurrency for Ethereum.