Interview | Sparkbridge Interactive: Playing for Good

A very unique company, Sparkbridge was founded by people from the Vancouver Aquarium and FableVision Studios, two leading organizations from different industries but with complimentary missions and values. The Vancouver Aquarium is a recognized leader in activating digital communications to connect people to the natural world and critical issues related to environmental stewardship, conservation, and research.  They recognize the potential of mobile technology to support their mission and reached out to FableVision Studios to realize this potential. FableVision Studios is an award-winning educational media and game developer dedicated to helping all learners reach their full potential in more creative ways. Sparkbridge, in short, is a mobile app publisher focused on creating a global, cooperative platform through a customizable game framework. They join together informal learning environments, visitors and positive content creators to support the goals of member institutions. Scott Triola, CEO, is a veteran of the game industry, he comes from a family of educators, and has two young daughters of his own. Experiences that entertain, educate and enlighten are where Scott lives and what he is passionate about.

Victor: What prompted you to start down this path?

Scott: I joined SparkBridge out of a desire to apply my experience in interactive gaming to create something that could both educate and entertain players. With two young daughters of my own (ages 5 and 4), I want to focus my work on positive family-friendly content that I can feel good about them playing. As a parent, making games purely for entertainment value is no longer personally or professionally satisfying and I need to be involved with projects with the potential to have a positive impact.

Victor: What does the name mean?

Scott: In choosing a name, we sought to find a balance between meaning and tone. At its core, SparkBridge is dedicated to creating inspiration by combining the best of the virtual and real worlds. “Spark” connotes action and refers to the creation of inspiration and “Bridge” describes the new connections we are making between technology, informal learning sites, their visitors and content creators.

We also use the tagline “Play for Good” which reinforces our focus on providing people with entertaining interactive experiences that are educational and support the missions and strategic goals of our partner organizations.

Victor: What is SparkBridge’s Mission?

Scott: SparkBridge is a mobile app publisher focused on joining together informal learning environments, their visitors and positive interactive content. This union enables a new level of interaction between these groups and is the catalyst for innovative new interactive tools that support the missions and strategic goals of our partner institutions.

More specifically, we are focused on creating apps that enhance the visitor experience at informal learning sites and deepen and extend the relationship between the visitor and the institution. Ultimately, it’s about using technology to strengthen these connections.

Victor: What apps do you offer?

Scott: Our first app is called “Snappz” and it’s an interactive treasure hunt game designed to be played on location at a variety of informal learning sites. The basic idea is that as they explore, visitors find “Snappz Tags” which are physical signs strategically placed at exhibits throughout the site. Using their smartphone and the “Snappz” app they scan the tags when they find them to get a reward and trigger an interactive challenge related to the exhibit. If they find enough Snappz Tags and complete enough challenges they earn a physical reward that they can take home with them.

Snappz is not a traditional game in that it uses the iPhone as a tool or catalyst for real world engagement versus creating an experience that immerses the player in a virtual world contained within the 3.5 inch screen.

We launched Snappz at the Vancouver Aquarium and we are now signing up additional locations to utilize the app. Snappz was designed to be easy to update and customize so that it can be used in a variety of locations and the content can be refreshed to highlight new or different exhibits and information.

Victor: How is “Snappz” unique from other similar products/services?

Scott: It may seem counterintuitive, but what’s unique about “Snappz” is that the goal of our app is get people to look away from their smartphone and pay more attention to the world around them. Unlike the vast majority of apps, we are not creating digital content with the purpose of immersing the player in a virtual world, we are creating digital content that redirects the player to explore and interact with their physical environment. This is critical to our mission as we must enhance a person’s experience at the Aquarium, Zoo or Museum and not distract or detract from it.

What also sets us apart is that we work in close collaboration with the experts at each site to select the location of the Snappz Tags and create the location challenges. These local experts essentially play the role of game designer. This is critical to ensuring that the Snappz experience highlights the best each location has to offer and compliments the unique experience each location provides. These experts obviously know their site and their visitors better than we do and their input to the process is invaluable.

Victor: Any feedback from the players?

Scott: One of the benefits of having our app onsite at an Aquarium is the ability to directly interact with our players and get their feedback while they are playing. We are constantly working to update and improve our apps and this feedback is a key input to this process. Our player surveys find that over 85 percent of respondents indicate that Snappz “enhances” their visit they rate our game 4 out of 5 (5 being the best) or higher in Educational Value, Fun Factor and Overall Enjoyment. This is exactly the type of feedback we were hoping for when set out to make the Snappz App!

Through comments and conversations with our players we have discovered that families particularly enjoy playing Snappz as it provides a fun, shared goal experience that fosters interaction among parents and kids. We have also heard from Aquarium Members that by using our app they discovered new things during their visit that they had never noticed before. One mother commented how her daughter had started to become bored with the Aquarium but that by playing our app her enthusiasm has been renewed. How awesome it that!

Perhaps the most rewarding feedback has come from the Vancouver Aquarium staff. We were initially apprehensive about their reaction to our new app that set out to enhance the experience they work so hard to deliver every day. The initial reception we received to our demo was extremely positive and they have been incredibly supportive of our efforts ever since. They are our eyes and ears on the ground every day and their input is critical to making our app the best it can be.

Victor: When was it developed? What is something interesting or relevant about its development history?

Scott: What I find most interesting is that our app leverages incredibly advanced mobile technology, but our creative inspiration is as low tech as you can get. My personal inspiration came from a nature hike I took last year with my daughters. They were excited to head out on the trail at first, but quickly started to lose interest as we meandered down the trail. Most parents can relate to this scenario of trying to have a shared positive experience with your kids only to find the young minds starting to drift and become restless shortly after you begin! In the case of the nature walk, I noticed a trail marker and excitedly pointed it out to my girls and explained what it was and why it was there. We made a game out of finding the next trail marker and they were suddenly not only re-engaged in the nature walk, but were eagerly scanning the woods looking for the next trail marker and noticing new things they never would have noticed otherwise. Finding trail markers took an abstract experience and made it tangible, rewarding and fun for them! With our Snappz app, we are looking to create that same type of experience and build on it through fun and educational interactive challenges that are triggered when they find each “trail marker” we place throughout the location.

Victor: Where did it originate? Where can you play it now?

Scott: The developer of Snappz is FableVision Studios, located in Boston, Mass. Their team has deep experience working on interactive content that is both educational and fun. This is a tricky balance to strike and nobody is better at making learning fun than FableVision. They have also worked with a variety of informal learning sites on various projects and understand the unique opportunities and challenges in creating media for these locations. Snappz can currently be played at the Vancouver Aquarium and we will be adding additional locations this summer. It’s available for iOS on the App Store and we will be bringing Snappz to Android shortly.

Victor: How much does it cost?

Scott: Snappz is currently free to play. We will be adding some premium in-app purchase options soon, but it will remain free to download. Pricing and premium content have not yet been finalized.

Victor: What are your thoughts on education these days?

Scott: With a daughter in kindergarten and a daughter in pre-k, my view of education is constantly evolving as I participate in their educational experiences. I find it comforting that much of what they learn and the manner in which they learn it are very similar to what I remember from my own childhood. My Mom held on to everything from my childhood and I have many of the books, learning activities and educational toys I used as a kid. Not to digress, but I was particularly adept at dried pasta painting. It is amazing to me that despite all the technological and cultural change over the past 30 plus years, these same educational tools are as effective now as when I used them. I remember being fascinated and inspired by Harold and the Purple Crayon as a boy and it was the first book I gave to my first daughter. To see her be inspired by that same book all these years later is rewarding beyond words. This is just one example of many and it underscores my belief that the foundations of education do not rely on new technology or cultural fads. Education is about exploration, discovery and inspiration and that can come from any number of sources. These sources also vary by student and the best teachers are the ones who are able to connect each student with their passion.

With changing technology, the tools we use to educate students can and should evolve. Today’s computers, smartphones and tablets provide an incredibly rich possibility space for interactive learning that simply didn’t exist when I was in school. An important part of education is teaching students how to responsibly use these devices that now permeate daily life and we must also explore ways to leverage these technological tools to compliment and enhance learning. As we explore, it is important to remember that this technology is still in its infancy and there will be frequent advances and missteps as we collectively discover how to best use these new tools in an educational context. This discovery process is an education in itself and I am inspired to learn more each and every day!

Victor: How does SparkBridge address some of your concerns about education?

Scott: SparkBridge is focused on creating new ways to use technology as a tool to inspire exploration and discovery. Sometimes the technology can become the focus and the inspiration can get lost along they way. This is always a concern when bringing new technology into education. At SparkBridge we work very hard to avoid this common pitfall. In the case of our Snappz app, we are combining proven smartphone technology with a good old-fashioned physical treasure hunt game. We debated implementing more advanced technology into our app but ultimately determined that the best path to inspiration was not the more technologically advanced approach. We also decided to incorporate simple and quick challenges as part of the treasure hunt experience to provide fun learning opportunities and a greater sense of achievement. Again, we looked at more complex interactive experiences but we ultimately went with the simpler approach because it was effective and did not distract from the human experience of visiting an Aquarium, Zoo or Museum. Sometimes less is more and that can be a difficult conclusion to arrive at when you work in a creative industry.

Victor: What sort of formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to your work at SparkBridge?

Scott: Both of my parents are educators and this has had a fundamental impact on my professional approach. As I have discovered over the years, the apple truly doesn’t fall far from tree and I am always looking for ways to develop projects that can both entertain and educate players. To me, the best games are those that go beyond pure entertainment and leave the player with a better understanding or appreciation of their world in some way. Games can and should be a catalyst for inspiration and that is at the core of our projects at SparkBridge.

Victor: Got any interesting stories?

Scott: I have two examples that underscore how personal technology has reshaped expectations for today’s young minds and created a technological gap with older generations.

When we launched the first Snappz pilot at the Vancouver Aquarium, I spent the first few days onsite talking with visitors as they tried out our game. Typically, I would end up talking to a parent while their children checked out the app. By the time I was done describing the app to the sometimes skeptical adults, the children would already have logged on to the free wi-fi network, downloading the app and started playing. The kids were way ahead of Mom Dad and in some cases the parents had to give their iPhone to their kids as they did not know how to install an app! For many adults, this new technology is counterintuitive and intimidating but for children it rapidly becomes second nature. As a personal reference point, I gave my parents an iPad around the same time my 3 year old daughter starting playing with my iPad. Guess who got the hang of it faster?

Another example that sticks out in my mind happened one day while I was working in my home office on my “old fashioned” desktop computer. My oldest daughter, who was age 3 at the time, came into the room, hopped on my lap and wanted to look at some digital photos I had recently taken. I pulled up the photos and started clicking through them with my mouse, but she wanted to take control so she hopped up on the desk and started swiping the monitor with her hand! The concept of a screen that was not touch-controlled was counterintuitive to her after having used with my iPad! I on the other hand, have the exact opposite expectation having grown up with traditional computers and input devices. This is a simple example that underscores both the type of interactivity today’s children expect and the different set of expectations that can exist between generations.

Victor: What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of SparkBridge?  

Scott: I would underscore that technology should be embraced as a tool to further education and that we are only beginning to understand how to use personal technology in the educational content. Companies like SparkBridge are experimenting with new ways to use interactive applications to inspire learning and collectively, we have only begun to explore the vast possibility space. I encourage all educators to have an open mind, try different approaches and see what does and does not work both for themselves and for their students. I also strongly encourage educators to provide their feedback to developers of educational software and hardware. This feedback is invaluable to us and we would love to hear about the positives and negatives of your experience with our offerings. Typically this feedback can be submitted directly via a form on the company’s website or a link on the app page on the App Store. By working in collaboration, we will forge the path forward more quickly than otherwise.

Victor: Thanks, Scott! I really appreciate it! Excellent insights!

Scott: No problem—thank you, Victor!

___

Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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