Educating children through television isn’t new. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Sesame Street, Arthur, Dora the Explorer—some of the most beloved shows among kids and adults alike are those that present learning in a fun, entertaining way. However, they leave their audience sitting passively on a couch or the floor with no way to interact, let alone affect the story itself.
A new augmented-reality app aims to change that. Wonderscope, a creation of AR and VR startup Within, wants to give the audience a chance to do that using smartphones and tablets.
Wonderscope debuted Wednesday with two stories and more on the way in December and 2019. Some stories will be free, while others will cost a few dollars each.
Wonderscope encourages viewers to follow the characters as they walk across a floor or bed or fly around a room. A viewer can lean in closer to the action or back up to take it all in while also talking with the characters themselves using the app’s voice-recognition technology. The first few stories are around eight or nine minutes but could vary depending on how quickly a viewer wants to travel along the storyline or its surrounding landscape.
According to Within co-founder Chris Milk, an early pioneer in the VR space, the AR stories feel “like you’re in a play together with these characters.” In fact, a feature called “look at” lets users make eye contact.
“Traditional devices—you turn it on and you sort of shut out the world around you,” Milk said. “And this makes the iPhone or iPad into a wonderscope because, like a lens, so you can look into your own world.”
One of the first stories, “Little Red the Inventor,” brings the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood into the modern day, and the viewer along with it, as Red tries to evade the Big Bad Wolf while using a drone to plant flowers. “A Brief History of Stunts by Astounding People” animates history with a miniseries of three nonfiction stories. One stars 88-year-old Betty Bromage, who stood on the wings of an airborne biplane. Another depicts Charles Blondin tightrope-walking across Niagara Falls. And the third is all about Helen Gibson, Hollywood’s first stuntwoman.
In December, a story based on Alice In Wonderland will debut on the app, starring the White Rabbit as ringmaster of Wonderland while the viewer vies for a job in the spot.
The company is hoping the app will become a collaborative experience for parents and children. Whether it’s just following along or helping read aloud or accomplish tasks, the goal is to make each story feel more communal.
Whether or not kids will let their parents help them help Little Red Riding Hood or come along on a job interview with the White Rabbit remains to be seen. But the company hopes it will help decrease anxiety about too much screen time by creating what the company describes as a “screen-positive” experience.
“It then becomes a shared experience that they’re going to think back on as a memory and not that we sat down and watched TV together,” Milk said.
Within hopes other storytellers will use Wonderscope to create their own AR stories and make them available through the app. In order to help broaden the base of storytellers and content, the company created a tool set called Storymaker that lets creators outside Within make AR stories that will then be vetted by the company for possible inclusion.
The app’s debut comes as major companies like Google, Apple and Adobe are expand their own AR tools for developers and as companies hope to push the technology more into the mainstream. The reality that most smartphones now have AR built in to their operating systems is also appealing to Within. However, while some companies have begun pivoting from VR to AR, Within doesn’t see it as an either-or debate. Rather, the company takes the position that they’re simply two different mediums for immersive storytelling.
“The real risk for everyone in this space is to be overly committed to something that’s too far future-facing” Within COO Colin Decker said.