Does the future of preschool apps live in real time?

You can say Elie Dekel has been a big fish in a big, huge, massive pond flooded with children's entertainment offerings. The former Saban Brands president is now behind the launch of the new Captain McFinn and Friends brand, which is distinguishing itself from the masses by offering up live, real-time guided play for preschoolers.
November 12, 2015

As the former president of Saban Brands, you can say Elie Dekel has been a big fish in a big, huge, massive pond flooded with children’s entertainment offerings. Since stepping down from his role at Saban this past summer, Dekel has been tapped as a strategic advisor on a number of kid-specific projects, the first of which to officially launch is the Captain McFinn and Friends brand and its flagship Swim & Play app, a new preschool property that’s distinguishing itself from the masses by offering up live, interactive guided play.

Touted as the first children’s brand to offer live-video integration, Captain McFinn’s Swim & Play uses real people, known as Explorers, to respond to kids in real time within the game’s interactive undersea world. The facilitators, who have set up shop at game developer Flying Rhino’s Portland, Oregon-based office, are there to encourage users while they swim through 100 animated hot spots, play games and learning activities, mingle with interactive McFinn characters and watch original cartoon and music videos – all while addressing kids directly via their animated avatar name.

The app is also positioning itself as a tool for social and emotional literacy, where kids are encouraged to engage with other fish avatars through a clap button that cheers on other users.

But like the ocean itself, Captain McFinn’s brand potential shows considerable depth in certain areas, including education and consumer products, according to Dekel, who has primed the property to span both virtual and physical worlds.

“Already the Captain McFinn and Friends brand is rich in its amount of content. Even before the app’s launch, there has been a live interaction component, and our educational channels are well developed with curriculum tools,” says Dekel of the 380 US schools that have signed on for Captain McFinn’s S.H.A.R.K. Patrol educational kits . “You can find McFinn videos on YouTube, and as you’re seeing the worlds of mobile and TV blur, you can foreshadow where we are going with this.”

Without elaborating on any further future plans, Captain McFinn VP Esther Buschau says the current focus in on fine-tuning the mobile strategy. Buschau and her team recently launched a customized app about bullying prevention that extended to shopping center-hosted events. (Phyllis Cafaro, VP of marketing for The Cafaro Company, the largest privately held shopping center developer in the US, is Captain McFinn’s founder). Also making its debut in US shopping centers is a Captain McFinn virtual aquarium, which allows shoppers to interact with large screens through customizable fish avatars that live on their phones through proprietary mobile-into-on-site technology.

The similar behind-the-scenes tech used for the Swim & Play app was developed by Flying Rhino to allow each Explorer to engage with more than one child at a time. (Think Spike Jonze’s futuristic film Her, only the aquatic G-rated version). Each individual screen lines up to a central server that then allows the live hosts to tap interact with data provided, and on some occasions, get personal in greeting certain users.

“It works magically,” says Dekel. “And it is scalable. Seeing as awareness is growing, this is about to make the leap into a new dimension in how you tell stories.”

Naturally, the live component brings up questions surrounding time zones and peak gaming times, which are still being addressed internally, as are ways to keep the Explorer content – or their loose scripts – fresh on a daily basis. Dekel says the live segments are conducted like a large group class, so lessons are always fresh and different each day, which is a way to keep kids coming back for more.

And so far, they are returning. According to Swim & Play’s early stats, almost 60% of sessions involve returning users (where a return user is anyone who engages with the app a minimum of three times during that month). Since launching as a paid app in October, it has garnered a total of 45,000 downloads and average play time is roughly 14 minutes per session. The numbers are expected to rise considerably now that Fuhu is featuring Swim & Play in its recently launched nabi Elev-8 tablet. The app is otherwise available on the App Store for US$2.99. (The app originally launched in December 2014 as a free download with a monthly paid subscription offering of US$2.99 to US$4.99).

“At Saban Brands, I was very focused on reaching kids on all platforms and in all ways. The industry has changed in terms of media consumption, and mobile is becoming increasingly primary, as is on-demand entertainment,” says Dekel. “One of things that attracted me to this project is the remarkable and unique approach to interactive engagement with kids, particularly though mobile devices. To come across an opportunity on the creative IP side and tech side that was not only leaning into the space but also innovating it, I found to be a unique opportunity. Plus, there’s a rather large vision for the live element of the brand - and were just getting started.”

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