By Elizabeth Grant
When Transformers debuted in 1984, the sci-fi premise was super high-tech. Based on a line of Japanese toys, the series chronicled a war between giant alien robots that had crashed to Earth and could transform into vehicles. Back then, the internet as we know it didn’t exist, and kids six to 12 lived in households without personal computers.
Fast forward 30 years, and robots, smart cars and iPhones are all part of children’s lives. “We’ve come a pretty long way, so having a robot that can transform into a Camaro doesn’t have quite the excitement it did when I was a kid,” says Michael Vogel, VP of development at Hasbro Studios, which is underway with the latest instalment of the franchise. Transformers: Robots in Disguise will premiere next year on US-based Hub Network with a brand-new crop of Autobots summoned by Optimus Prime to save Earth under the supervision of Bumblebee.
“Most of our boys action shows, including Transformers, are always set just slightly enough in the future that we can give our human characters and our Autobot and Decepticon characters technology that’s just a bit more advanced than what we have today.” Autobots now have touchscreens in their cars and the characters use holographic technology, which Hasbro is betting won’t be out-of-date before the series goes into repeats.
“We put things just far enough into the future that the technology can be a little bit advanced. That’s combined with the fact that at the end of the day, we’re telling a story about intelligent, cybernetic life forms from a far-off planet that have space ships, lasers and spacebridges,” says Vogel.
Though Hasbro is keeping tight-lipped on the digital plans for the latest TV iteration of Transformers, Vogel says to expect an announcement on how the storytelling will extend to multiple platforms later this year.
Keeping relevant is part of the kids landscape, where Dora now has a cell phone and Barbie has embarked on a career as a tech entrepreneur. But besides reflecting modern technology in the stories they tell, kids content creators are getting even more savvy about extending technological themes through immersive digital experiences that help build digital literacy.
For example, last month BBC Children’s rolled out two new computer- and coding-themed TV series on CBBC are designed to take a hands-on approach to discovering technology and developing key digital skills.
Appsolute Genius follows characters Dick and Dom as they learn about the people who shaped the world of coding, gaming and computer programming, and it challenges kids to build games for the chance to create a real app. Technobabble, meanwhile, is a futuristic technology series that explores concepts like virtual reality and reviews the latest in apps, games and digital feats. And for the four to six set, CBeebies will also launch Nina and the Neurons: Go Digital, starring Nina and a team of experimenters who learn about the internet, coding, animation, driverless cars and 3D printing.
Based on characters that hatched in the 1980s as a cute, industrial army of mini-building engineers on The Jim Henson Company’s Fraggle Rock, Doozers launched in April as an original series for Hulu Kids. It features updated industrial gadgets for the wee engineers, as well as a fully realized science curriculum that dovetails with the Doozer Creek app.
In creating the series, producers were careful to show the Doozer squad interacting with technology in their daily lives. But in order to keep it fresh and prevent the technology from looking dated, the Doozers use completely original technology inspired by things that viewers at home might recognize. For example, there are no cell phones, but characters use their wrist communicators and map out their inventions on a hologram device.
“Interacting with and embracing the use of technology is a part of the Doozers curriculum,” says Anna Jordan, VP of digital development and interactive media at The Jim Henson Company. “Apps play a role in teaching, not only through the content in the games, but also by encouraging kids to explore the devices available to them, allowing them to feel encouraged and empowered to use today’s technology and be inspired to embrace, and even create, the technology of the future.”
With the series’ companion app, players place characters, vehicles and buildings from Doozer Creek on a blank playmat and then watch Doozers sing, play and drive with an aim to foster problem-solving, spatial reasoning and basic engineering skills.
Making technology accessible
Co-founder and president of Boston-based media development firm FableVision, Gary Goldberger says when bringing technology themes to life with interactive features, it’s important to look at the most optimal play pattern for an age group and a device, and then use that play pattern to engage. “You have to figure out if, on a phone, they will watch a lot of short-burst, multiple touch points throughout the day, or if they will they sit down and play for 15 minutes,” he says.
FableVision develops educational and entertainment experiences for kids and works with educational publishers, broadcasters, researchers and institutions, including Scholastic, Sesame Workshop, PBS KIDS and The Jim Henson Company, developing software, apps, animated websites and digital storybooks.
Goldberger predicts bringing stories to life on devices in the near future will involve “technology that allows kids to come closer to the screen and will move away from external input devices.”
In particular, he says to keep an eye out for kids applications that use Leap Motion, which uses motion capture to track finger and palm movements and allows users to grab and move things on a screen by just making a movement.
Just exactly how Leap Motion could be integrated into game play is still to be seen. “There would no longer need to be a touch screen, we’d just be swiping air,” says Goldberger. “How would that affect younger kids? How long can you play like that? Will that change the interactions you can have or want to have? All these questions arise with new devices.”
Goldberger also cautions about creating experiences for kids that involve augmented reality. “Ideally you should create an experience where the device goes away, which makes augmented reality a little clunky right now because you are putting the device in front of the content.”
The medium is the message
Spain’s Imira Entertainment, however, has created content with augmented reality that it hopes will bring the experience full circle. The company is harnessing the digital technology to bring an inherently tech-based story to life in a new series called Planet Play. The series itself is based on another futuristic concept that might not be so far off—a world where everyone has a personal robot.
The premise will no doubt resonate with kids who have helicopter parents keeping them tethered to their cell phones. It follows the adventures of a kid named Play, and takes place on planet Orbitrom23 where all children are assigned a bot—a mixture of babysitter, health monitor and smartphone—that allows parents to have their children supervised at all times. However, these bots also let kids make video calls, send text messages, project images and access the internet. So before long, Play and his friends modify their bots to do what they want.
“The bots allow us to seamlessly incorporate the use of technology and Artificial Intelligence themes, as well as giving the series its futuristic feel,” says Sergi Reitg, CEO of Imira.
The property uses augmented reality on tablets and smartphones while viewers are watching either on traditional TV sets or online, which Reitg says fits with the technological theme of the series and its content. For example, when a character on the series uses a botcard—a programmed card with specific powers—the augmented reality component, indicated by a symbol on the screen, will allow viewers to use their tablet or smartphone to access more information about that botcard’s powers. Additionally, viewers will be able to see the whole planet and its characters in 3D and rotate it with their fingers.
Reitg explains the augmented reality component activates through an app that recognizes a programmed symbol on screen. When the viewer points a smartphone or tablet at the symbol, additional 3D images, which seem real, appear through the app. The augmented reality experience will appear two or three times in each episode, lasting from 60 to 90 seconds.
“For any series, the important thing is to have a solid story and leading characters,” says Reitg. “The challenge here has been to incorporate the technology into the storyline itself and make sure it strengthens it, adds freshness and provides an original twist to entertain audiences first and foremost.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Kidscreen