Makey Makey Maker’s Next Project Takes on Augmented Reality to Teach Kids to Code
When Jay Silver thinks of people with radical ideas, he thinks of his late father starting a food co-op in South Florida in the 1970s.
People thought his father, Joel, was crazy for gathering a group of people to buy bulk health foods. Now these items are in vogue, and Silver’s father proved naysayers wrong. Although Joel passed away in 2013, Sunseed Food still exists in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and Jay sits on the board. “He was ahead of his time,” Silver recalls.
Pursuit of unusual ideas has defined Silver’s career, from his work helping to develop the Scratch block-based programming language to starting JoyLabz, the company behind the Makey Makey invention kits that introduce kids to programming and build skills through hands-on projects. Over the last seven years, he’s sold over a million of these kits, generating $25 million in sales revenue.
Silver, 39, has another education project in the works. Over the past four years, he’s worked on GameBender, which aims to teach kids how to code.
Silver was enigmatic in his description of the GameBender offering, preferring to keep details under wraps until May 29, when he says the company will unveil the final product and pricing. He would only say that the goal of GameBender is to help children to learn to code through modifying existing apps and games.
GameBender is meant for children 8 and older, just like Makey Makey.
According to a project summary from the National Science Foundation, which has given Gamebender $1 million to pilot its wares in museums and schools, the product “is composed of a projection system that allows real-time programmable interactions between everyday and virtual objects without a computer screen.”
GameBender will offer apps “which are built-in augmented activities where users create small inventions with everyday objects to code interactions and affect program flow or gameplay.”
Using code to transform physical objects into new dynamic experiences is something that Silver has long championed. It’s not too different from the philosophy and approach behind one of the most popular Makey Makey products, which teaches children about circuits with projects like turning bananas into piano keys by connecting them to a computer.
Rajesh Mehta, director of National Science Foundation’s small business innovation research and small business technology transfer programs, says the foundation chose GameBender as one of about 300 companies it funds a year because it passed the bar of intellectual merit, broad impact, commercial potential and challenge for traditional funding.
Mehta says products offering game-based learning and that seek to engage children have caught his attention of late. “We need ideas that make this field [of education] come alive,” he says. “GameBender is one of the many companies that we hope will make a difference.”
JoyLabz, parent of Makey Makey and GameBender, was borne out of a Kickstarter campaign in 2012 that raised almost $600,000. Since that campaign, JoyLabz has been self-sufficient. It has seven employees and dozens of contractors.
GameBender has 15 people dedicated to the project, a mix of employees, contractors and advisers.
Makey Makey’s success surprised Silver, who thought it was too radical for teachers to try in their classrooms. “We thought we were rebelling against mainstream learning,” he says. “But mainstream learning has changed.” While Makey Makey was initially received as a toy, he hopes it’s built a lasting impression as a teaching tool. “We’re not just chasing the dollar,” he says. “We have a mission here.”