How Osmo is Harnessing Artificial Intelligence to Stimulate Children’s Imaginations

Since launching in 2014, Osmo has created experiences for children that truly transcend the boundaries of play. While their latest platform Monster (“Mo”) — an illustration pad that turns kids’ drawings into digital animations — is a testament to their pioneering influence, it’s a stronger indication of what’s to come for the Palo Alto startup led by former Googlers Pramod Sharma and Jerome Scholler.

Pramod, Jerome, and their kids

Pramod describes Mo “like the friendly uncle who plays with you, doesn’t judge you, or give you too many instructions.” When you watch kids interact with Mo, the imaginative and physical elements are so akin to traditional play it’s difficult to believe that advanced artificial intelligence and computer vision are powering the friendly monster. That’s precisely the point, and why Pramod was inspired to create Osmo: He didn’t want his daughter mindlessly staring at an iPad with no physical or social engagement. Today, he takes us behind the scenes to share how the team is leveraging A.I. to design intuitive and transformative experiences for children.

Can you tell us about your inspiration behind Mo?

One of the biggest inspirations behind Mo was answering the question: What does tech mean for creative kids? There’s tech for science kids like coding games, but what does it mean for the child who is imaginative, loves drawing, and lives in their dreams? We wanted to build an experience that brings that creativity, imagination, and technology together.

The intent of our last product Coding was letting kids control how Awbie [a playful digital character] moves on the screen. It’s all about how you control and express your thoughts in a way that warrants structure. We’ve taken that to a very different level around creativity with Mo. How do you express your imagination without being judged and have a really fun experience doing it? Kids being creative, imaginative, and highly engaged is a big goal for us. We believe it’s super healthy for children.

How do you hope Mo is going to ignite children’s imaginations?

Mo’s role is encouraging children’s imagination without judgment. It gives them a framework where they can imagine something and then see it come to life. That’s a very big deal for young people. You have a tool but it’s your imagination, your idea. The role of Osmo is: How do we take kids from an idea to the manifestation of their imagination? Imagination is like any other skill. It grows when we see it being expressed. The more you imagine the better you become at it.

People typically think of imagination with no constraints. The challenge with that is that it’s too hard. We try to give kids the right tools so they can imagine something and have fun bringing it to life without the platform being too open ended where they have no idea what to do. It’s a fine balance. We always try to pick a direction that is engaging, fun, and exciting for children. If you aren’t excited and having fun you won’t play with a product, regardless of how good it is for you.

Interactivity has always been paramount at Osmo, so it wasn’t going to be Mo dictating what a child should draw. How do you balance what Mo knows and what contributions he needs from kids?

There are two main ideas. One, what should the core interaction be? We see drawing as a very interactive platform to express your creativity. Hands-on drawing is a big part of how Mo operates. It’s how you interact with him. Second, we focus on activities that are inherently open-ended. That’s why we picked a magic show. It’s magic so you don’t need rules. We strive to allow for open-ended exploration in all of the activities and features we build.

When WIRED covered Mo they highlighted how Osmo is bringing mixed reality to the education world. What is your philosophy around mixed reality? Why is it so important to your team?

Mixed reality captures Osmo well: how we’re using the power of the digital and physical worlds and mixing them together to create a new category of experiences. Inherently, the concept of mixed is bigger than digital or physical alone. For learning applications, I think mixed reality has a very strong promise in the richness of experiences you can build. If you can do a better job sensing the real world, you can design much deeper experiences. As an example, I wouldn’t be surprised if one day you open a book and Osmo is looking at it and reading to you. There are experiences where digital can augment your physical world in a really powerful way. As the technology improves, whether it’s advanced computer vision, hardware, or A.I., things will get more and more natural. When things get more natural there is no friction between you and what you want to do. With less friction and more power, things become more engaging.

How do you think A.I. can help us accelerate children’s development and learning?

Similar to any other technology, A.I. will enable experiences that were previously hard to imagine. If I were to think about it right now, I see two tracks for AI. One is around building a new experience for you. You couldn’t have used your hand to draw with an iPad in the past. Now, thanks to advancements in computer vision and A.I, you can. Additionally, machines are learning more about us the more we use them. That’s very powerful in telling you what you can do next. For example, a platform can tell you: ‘You’ve done these three activities. In order to grow over time, you need to focus on this area.’

I wouldn’t be surprised if one day you can tell kids what careers they should pick or what types of things they can do based on the products they use in Osmo Land.

That will come from understanding things and putting them together. A.I. is the underlying technology that can enable that.

Your co-founder Jerome shared that “Monster is a rare opportunity in computer vision where if a mistake is made it is acceptable or even desirable.” Why is it significant that kids are free to make mistakes?

Osmo Coding

When we started Osmo, Jerome and I didn’t really know where it was going to go. We had a dream, but looking back we didn’t understand many things. A lot of our learnings have come by trying things and failing. We are trying to create a whole new space that didn’t exist a couple of years ago. Learning is built into the DNA of our culture. It’s an important part of growing up as a company and also an important part of growing up as a child. That’s why letting kids make mistakes and define their own boundaries is important. For example in Coding, Awbie lives in a fantasy world with lakes, trees, and different terrain. Whenever the kids see a lake they want Awbie to go in the water. It always happens. Adults don’t do that. An adult knows that Awbie is going to drown. Kids want Awbie to jump into the water and see what happens. They are able to do that and we made it fun. He jumps in and then he comes back again.

What have you learned about kids desire to experiment? How does that inform your product development?

Kids inherently want to experiment. That’s how they learn. In our products, we always want to make sure that experimentation is fun and not a friction. How do you take experimentation from a child not doing what you intended to making their idea exciting for them? We have gotten better at this by testing with children and saying: ‘If you want to do that, let’s make sure it is fun in the game.’ We try to give children as much freedom as possible to experiment in every product we build. It can’t feel like it is the wrong thing to do.

What has surprised you the most about the way kids play?

One of the things that surprised me the most is the variance among kids. Kids are so different from each other. You typically interact with a few kids in your lifetime but as you start interacting with different kids what works for one might not work at all for the second one. The variety of interests and personalities is amazing. That humbles us at Osmo. It’s very hard to build products for everyone. We try to do a lot of experimentation to make sure that a product is built in a way that works with as many kids as possible. Our hope is that we get different kinds of kids excited.

I love that and it seems like you guys are really focused on it for the future; Building products for the creative child, the one who wants to learn how to code, or do math. That’s so important.

It’s very important. We build products that genuinely cater to the differences in children. We shouldn’t focus on a specific gender or genre. We focus on what is holistically good for kids.

All image credits to Osmo.