PBS Kids, WGBH’ New Augmented Reality Math App Gets Kids Moving

PBS Kids and Boston-based public broadcasting station WBGH are testing the waters in the nascent space of augmented reality with a recently released free math app for the iPhone. FETCH! LUNCH RUSH is designed to help children in the six to eight-year-old age range improve their arithmetic skills.

The app uses augmented reality, which is a technology that overlays virtual data or images over the real world, to enhance teaching math.

To play the game, you have to print out pieces of paper showing special augmented reality markers. (Players can either get these markers sent to them from the app by e-mail or they can be downloaded from the PBS Kids site.) Each piece of paper has a number from one to ten along with special markers that trigger the app’s augmented reality technology.

The app then shows arithmetic problems with answers ranging from one to ten. The goal is to point the iPhone or iPod Touch’s camera at the marker with the correct answer. After that, three-dimensional drawings of sushi float over the paper in the the iPhone’s live camera feed and then award the player points if the answer is right.

While many of the PBS Kids iOS apps are either $1.99 or $2.99 (the lone PBS Kids Android app Super Why! is $2.99), the Fetch! Lunch Rush app is free. The app is part of suite of products developing using funding provided by PBS Kids from the U.S. Department of Education’s Ready to Learn Grant.

PBS’ partner in developing the app, the public broadcasting station WGBH, had a small in-house team develop this app in about six months. They brought in a curriculum specialist, who could make sure the educational content was right for the age target, and an augmented reality consultant. Part of the challenge was to build an augmented reality app that could accommodate a six- to eight-year-old child’s small hands.

The team choose an open-source augmented reality software library called ARToolKit from the University of Washington’s Human Interface Technology Laboratory (HITLab). They had to get around a few issues in making sure ARToolKit could support both versions of the iPhone 4 and 4S: the CDMA version for Verizon’s network along with AT&T’s GSM one. They also pulled open-source art for the three-dimensional images of sushi.

PBS Kids is currently looking at building even more augmented reality-based apps that might include sound and gesture based interfaces. PBS Kids Interactive Director of Technology Jeremy Roberts said the team is also looking at whether they can use augmented reality for apps on smart TVs.

So far, the reaction has been pretty positive. Roberts said some parents make the game more challenging by hiding the pieces of papers and making their children literally find the answer. Best of all, the app gets children physically moving to answer math problems.