This startup lets your kid design a cardboard castle via tablet

If you’ve ever handed a tablet to a kid and watched them start swiping and tapping like they were born to do it, you know how powerful tech is in the hands of children. Tablets can open an entirely new world to kids, but the rise of tablet play has inevitably led a decline in the amount of time kids spend making their own fun, which is a crucial part of childhood development. There’s a litany of apps that limit screen time in an effort to get kids to unplug and interact with the “real world”, but one startup is taking a different approach and attempting to bridge the gap between digital and imaginative play.

The basic idea behind PopUp Play is that one of the greatest “toys” a kid can have is a giant cardboard box and an imagination, thus transforming a refrigerator box into a castle or spaceship. But recognizing that in today’s world, more playtime on the tablet is translating to less time spent interacting with the world in the jovial, imaginative way that kids are wont to do, Amelia Cosgrove and Bryan Thomas dreamt up PopUp Play, an Austin-based startup that brings tablet play into the real world with cardboard “playscapes” — sturdy cardboard castles that are designed by children via a tablet app.

As a kid, Cosgrove spent a lot of time in cardboard boxes. Co-founder Thomas tells me how their startup started with a conversation over lunch with colleagues during which Cosgrove recounted her experience as a kid, playing in a boxes that became rocket ships and pieces of imagined worlds.

“PopUp Play is this blend between offline, imaginative play and online play,” says Thomas. “Kids start in the PopUp Play Build Lab, which is a 3D design tool for kids, and they design their own custom Playscape –like a castle, a gingerbread house or a rocket ship — and then push a button, and a few days later, we deliver the design to their door, exactly as they designed it in the app. So, they’re literally designing a physical structure in the app that we make and deliver to their house, and they get to play inside.”

PopUp Play starts with letting kids create and design custom Playscapes on its Build Lab app and then gives them the experience of seeing something they designed appear at their doors. Made from rugged, play-tested cardboard, they assemble in a few minutes and can be quickly dismantled and stored flat until playtime comes round again.

Starting from basic frameworks, kids can customize their Playscapes with structural components like drawbridges, towers, and windows, along with design elements like a custom coat of arms or decals of dragons, torches and unicorns. The Build Lab itself is a kid-friendly 3D design program that gives kids a little bit of guidance and a lot of freedom as they create.

“The only thing that’s fixed on the castle is that it has to have four walls. Beyond that, kids can add windows, towers, doors anywhere they want them. And then we provide a little bit of gentle guidance in the app to help them make decisions with respect to the design itself,” says Thomas. “For some of these younger kids, the app has what we call gentle nudges to help them make good decisions about where to put structural components so that the structure actually stands up. Along the way, they’re learning good engineering and design practices.”

Though I’m a bit older than the target demographic, I took the app for a spin and created pretty incredible castle. Really. It has my name, a coat of arms, a dragon and lots of flames. Feel free to tell me how great it is:

  Playscapes are intended for kids age 3-9 and, as such, they’re designed to stand up to a lot of use and abuse. What’s more, playscapes are a flat price of $99 plus $10 for shipping, meaning that whether a kid opts for a simple-but-elegant castle or one that’s got three towers, five windows and a drawbridge, the price is the same. Much unlike the many children’s apps that allow kids to rack up hefty bills with in-app purchases (like the ones that Kanye publicly denounced just a few weeks ago), PopUp Play isn’t looking to limit kids by putting a premium on creatively-designed structures.

“We really wanted kids to feel like they had full breadth of creativity without any incremental costs or repercussions,” says Thomas, “because that’s just lame.”

While the $99 price point might seem a bit high when the alternative is a refrigerator box and a set of markers, the startup believes the educational aspects of the playscapes will provide justification. Though kids have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to cool toys, there isn’t much opportunity for them to translate a learning experience into a large physical structure that’s meant for play. PopUp Play’s playscapes present something of a new creative opportunity for kids that comes to life in a big way.

“This is something that a kid designs and actually gets inside,” says Thomas. “When I was a kid, I was really frustrated that everything was always kid-sized and scaled down, and it was never as cool as what you saw in the commercials. So PopUp Play completed focused on this idea that it’s as good as you saw in the commercials. The promise of designing your own thing and then actually going through it is just as awesome as you thought it would be.”

While the castle is the only available framework for now, the end of the month will bring two new frameworks: a gingerbread house and a rocket ship. PopUp Play’s Build Lab is available in the App Store now, and parents and kids will be able to order playscapes right away. And, for those aunts, uncles and grandparents who may want to get in on the action, PopUp Play offers gift codes that kids and parents can redeem in-app for a playscape whenever they’re ready to get to work designing.

Twitter won an Emmy

Twitter won a technical Emmy, and it’s receiving the award Thursday at CES. It was chosen for “Innovation in improving engagement around television in social media.” A bit more of a mouthful than “Best Actor.”

This is Twitter’s first ever Emmy. The news was highlighted during Twitter’s CES panel on how media and entertainment companies should use the service, which Marketing Land liveblogged.

The Engineering Emmys are exactly what they sound like — an awards show for the non-red carpet strutting members impacting the television industry. Technology and cable companies are nominated for a range of daring technical feats like “Secure Accelerated File Movement over IP” and “Development of Low Latency Video Streaming Live Captioning Systems.” It’s super sexy.

They’re granted to techies, “for engineering developments so significant an improvement on existing methods or so innovative in nature that they materially affect the transmission, recording or reception of television.” Some might snort at the idea of Twitter transforming the nature of television (I’m looking at you, Tom Krazit), given that it hasn’t quite reached the scale of the common TV viewer.

But as Twitter’s CES panel showed, that hasn’t stopped Hollywood studios and agencies from mining the application for consumer insights. For example, the producers of upcoming hacker movie Blackhat shifted their marketing strategy after seeing Twitter conversations about the Sony hack. Xbox TV uses what’s trending on Twitter to recommend current live shows to people.

The categories of the engineering Emmy Awards change every year, depending on the technologies pioneered by companies in the past. Previous well known Silicon Valley winners range from Netflix (for its personalization technology) to Apple (for its mobile television ecosystem).


Docker nabs former VMware guru Marianna Tessel as SVP of engineering

Docker said Thursday that Marianna Tessel, former VMware vice president of engineering, is now the container specialist’s senior vice president of engineering. During her six-year stint at VMware, Tessel oversaw the engineering initiatives behind various VMware partnerships, including the integration between vSphere and OpenStack. Her move to Docker makes sense as the startup has been busy making sure its technology jives well with other big companies, VMware included. “I felt my background is very relevant to Docker,” said Tessel in reference to Docker’s partnership strategy.

Origami robots build themselves and walk away

When heated, flat sheets fold into functional robots that can move and turn. The technology could be used to assemble tiny structures or make it easier to ship robots long distances.

Closer IT and engineering collaboration: beyond the message from CES 2014

Although many of the countless, specific applications announced at CES 2014 won’t take off, there was a dominant theme to this year’s show, and that was that Internet-connected devices from home automation to the connected car and wearable sensors and cameras have arrived and are gaining traction.

Some implications for IT are clear, as big data will evolve to gargantuan data, and more intelligent networks will be required to handle the complexity and volume of traffic. The consumer applications are vast, as are the commercial and industrial ones. Cisco CEO John Chambers spoke at CES to the demands that he hopes will spur a new generation of growth for the dominant networking firm.

The implications for corporate IT

Corporate IT networks and processing need to be hardened, expanded, and advanced in capability to handle the new demands. Many corporate products, services and processes will be affected at some level within the next five years—which means that much product development and engineering will involve IT planning and design..

This trend will hasten and intensify the need for corporate IT and engineering to be more closely coupled  from planning through production and product support. The use of IT outsourcing will likely encompass more, integrated outsourcing of engineering design teams. Engineering will rely more upon IT network integration, and IT networks will require more engineering into the physical and logical aspects of products and production systems.

A role for integrated engineering and IT outsourcing

Outsourcers such as India-based HCL Technologies have been investing for a number of years in integrated IT and engineering services; and they have built teams of engineers and IT specialists in lower-cost, offshore locations in India and APAC that are specialized within specific industries.

Among the implications are the following:

  • All firms will need to more closely coordinate their product planning and engineering functions with their corporate IT.
  • More IT outsourcers will add or integrate with engineering expertise in order to provide seamless systems development and, ultimately, maintenance services.
  • U.S.-based firms will face more competitors that rely on offshore engineering, thus putting pressure on the cost and agility with which they are able to integrate IT and engineering for an increasing number of products and processes.
  • The flexibility of emerging software-defined network (SDN) technology, which enables easier updating of network resources, will in some cases provide an advantage in adapting to support new devices and services.
  • Firms that keep both engineering and integrated engineering and IT processes in-house, will need to leverage the other advantages to be gained from the close interdepartmental cooperation (e.g., with manufacturing, sales and services) that is possible with an onshore approach.

The CES spotlight may not have shone on enterprise engineering departments directly, but attention should be paid to the new IT, engineering, and organizational challenges to support a dramatic increasr in the number of Internet-connected devices for consumer, commercial, and industrial functions.