Local developers use AR and VR tech to deliver engaging learning apps

What is 500 feet tall, can ride a jetpack, hang-glide over the Himalayas and race up Mt Everest? Well, it is Verne the Yeti. Released earlier this month, Verne: The Himalayas is Google’s take on an educational app that lets young ones explore the mountain range in glorious 3D, while imparting information and letting kids try out traditional Himalayan instruments. Google Maps’ official blog says the move was a deliberate attempt to use existing 3D imagery to make learning about the world fun for kids.

Market insights firm Infiniti Research estimates that as of March 2015 there were 3.17 million apps available in app stores, about 15 per cent of which were categorised under education. The segment is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 34.72 per cent through to 2019. Although the first educational apps were largely a port of physical media, the latest leverage cutting-edge tech, delivering immersive experiences that educate children on an array of topics. For instance, this year’s winner of the Kids at Play Interactive (KAPi) Awards for Best App or Product for Younger Children was The Foos Coding 5+, where animated creatures present challenges that can be solved by code. Previous winners include Lumikids involving logic puzzles and Storybots that combines humour and learning.

In the UAE, the British Council has more than a dozen educational apps on its website to teach kids proper grammar, enhance their vocabulary and prepare them for English-language exams. Faraz Waqar, Head of Marketing and Communications at the British Council UAE, reveals Johnny Grammar and IELTS apps have been the most popular in this region: “The UAE is the second-biggest educational app market after Saudi Arabia for downloads and the biggest for income, and this is consistent with our own apps’ performance. These apps are unique because we’ve blended free play with guided language progression, gradually increasing the linguistic and cognitive challenge.

“How learners interact with digital and physical spaces is an interesting new area and we will be looking at how best to enable learner’s English-learning opportunities.”

Local apps

The educational apps category is also attracting local developers. Abu Dhabi-based AlphaApps is engaging kids with games such as Chivi and The Sira App — an interactive gamebook that teaches the story of Islam. Ayham Gorani, its founder, says most app users are from the UAE, Saudi Arabia and the US. “We wanted to give children in the region apps in a quality they would associate with international apps. We want kids to be amazed.” He has been tracking the Pokémon Go craze in the UAE, and AlphaApps is developing an augmented reality (AR) app for kids that will be a “totally new” concept. “Pokémon is a perfect example that with the right concept you can still land big hits in the app market.”

One educational AR app already out there is Colorbug, developed by Dubai-based pixelbug. Dany Al Eid, Founder and CEO, says its goal is for kids to learn in fun and interactive ways while improving motor skills — they have to use a pen to colour a physical sheet of paper before seeing their creations come to life. Along the way, Al Eid gained a better understanding of what works in this category. “For example, when we first launched the app we thought kids would be more inclined to listening to entertaining character voiceovers. However, we noticed they want to interact with the character right away. So we began building content to be more interactive and gamified.” He says these apps also need to appeal to another target market: parents.

Al Eid claims Colorbug has a global footprint, with most users in the US and Saudi Arabia. And with AR becoming popular, the app has seen a threefold increase in demand. In fact, Al Eid feels Pokémon Go has been beneficial for everyone in the AR/VR industry, since it brought the technology into mainstream consciousness: “Despite rudimentary AR in Pokemon Go, it validated people’s interest in using the real world with digital interactions. We are using it as a case study.” Pixelbug is working on a mixed reality experience where children use VR to explore different environments and topics.

Growl Media, another UAE-based developer, offers a roster of edutainment apps such as Appy Oceans, Appy Animals, Alfie’s ABC and Zee’s World Adventures. Its CEO, Dinesh Lalvani, says the apps have been downloaded more than 2.5 million times and bagged awards such as Best of 2014 on Apple’s App Store. Top countries using these apps include Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and India, while over 375,000 monthly active users spend more than 12 million minutes a month on them. Lalvani calls the UAE a melting pot with every possible demographic represented. “But with this comes the challenge of marketing to our audience as there is not one key channel that you can use to connect with them.”

Lalvani says AR and VR can enhance learning if used properly. “Though for early years education, we feel VR can be a bit overstimulating for children.”

Whatever it is you’re looking to teach your kids, chances are there’s an app for it.

The article first appeared online on Gulfnews.com/gn-focus