News flash: Kids love the iPad. And parents are generally OK with that--it's beyond helpful to be able to hand a child one long-lasting device that lets her read, play games, watch videos, or even make her own videos and artwork. But parents also know the zombie-like trance that too much iPad can cause, your kid's head craned downward for hours as he taps and swipes and pretends not to hear when you ask him something. And most iPad apps are best for one person, which stinks if you have more than one kid.
Osmo is designed to let kids ages 6 and up engage with an iPad in a cool new way--with their heads up, and their eyes and hands are moving between the screen and real-world objects that affect the gameplay, almost like magic. Better yet, while the games can be played by one person, they're even more fun with two...or three, or however many kids are around.
The Osmo device is an iPad stand that fits the iPad 2 and newer, and all iPad mini models. A friendly red piece attaches to the top of your iPad and uses a mirror to redirect the tablet's front-facing camera to the table or floor the stand is resting on. That turns the area in front of the iPad into the play space, and it's time to bust out the game pieces.
Would you like to play a game?
Osmo comes with three games to start. The Words game uses a box of Scrabble-like letter tiles. A photo appears on the screen, and one or more players toss letters into the play space to complete the word. You move as quickly as possible, like it's Wheel of Fortune at gunpoint, and I was delighted to realize you don't need to carefully line up the tiles in any specific spot or even have them right side up. You can literally fling them at the tablet, and as soon as the camera picks them up (we're talking milliseconds), the screen registers the guess. I hope parents or teachers get the ability to load up a kid's spelling words every week, because it's way more fun than worksheets or flash cards.
The Tangram game comes with familiar tangram wooden pieces, the ones you use to make shapes to match a picture. In this case, the picture is on the iPad's screen, and the camera watches the playfield, illuminating the onscreen puzzle pieces as you match them up on the table. The menu screen is a giant map of puzzles that become more challenging the more you unlock.
Newton, the third game, has you direct little red balls on the iPad's screen onto targets, by drawing lines and curves on a piece of paper on the table. But as soon as I reached my pencil out to draw my first line, I noticed that the camera saw the pencil itself, and would let the balls bounce off of that. Once that light bulb went on in my head, it was a blast to see what real-life objects I could move around on the table to create ramps and paths to the targets: pencils, paper clips, my hand, whatever was around.
Why it stands out
Clearly a ton of thought has gone into making the Osmo set. Osmo's CEO and cofounder, Pramod Sharma, told me the set has been play tested at more than 100 schools around the Bay Area, and he says teachers love how naturally social it is, while encouraging creative thinking. Parents will be pleased to hear that the sounds the games make aren't at all grating--Sharma was relieved when I complimented the cool sound effects, explaining that the team had iterated on them quite a bit to avoid the awfulness of most sound-producing kids' toys.
Even the packaging is cleverly designed. The game pieces come in boxes with little cubbies to keep things organized and make it obvious if a piece is missing, and even the boxes themselves snap together neatly with magnets. I also love how the Osmo stand and the piece that goes over the camera are totally analog: no power or charging needed, no Wi-Fi.
None of the games have instructions, yet it's easy to figure out how to interact with them, and then as you're interacting, your brain keeps thinking of new things to try. Since it's such a different way of using the iPad, you're not looking for familiar tropes like onscreen buttons or gestures. You'll try anything, and a lot of it will work. It's delightful.
Osmo officially launched on Thursday. You can preorder the entire set for $49, while the final price is expected to be $99 when it ships this summer. We look forward to putting it in the hands of our favorite elementary-age kids to find out if they think Osmo is awesome, or no.