REDMOND, Wash. — Nov. 12, 2008 — From observing one of her daughters playing computer games, Margaret Johnson knew there was no shortage of entertaining gaming titles on the market. “I noticed what the games did for her self-confidence and motor skills,” Johnson recalls. But the Microsoft executive turned entrepreneur was uncomfortable with the graphic images and violence prevalent in so many games. “I wanted to provide something that was fun but also educational, and that children and their parents could feel good about.”
A screen shot from the game Itza Bitza. The main character, Sketchy, explores the “Home” playset.
Students spend only 18 percent of their waking hours in a formal K-12 classroom setting over the course of a year — leaving ample opportunity for informal learning to supplement their schooling and advance critical cognitive skills, Johnson notes. “There are huge missed opportunities for learning outside school. At the same time, kids want to play, so we thought, why couldn’t we create something that they enjoyed plus got something beneficial from.”
But she knew that turning this vision into reality would be far from child’s play. Traditional so-called “edutainment” titles that have aspired to combine learning with entertainment have tended to be worthy but dull, with the result that kids have all too often turned to alternatives offering pure entertainment. Moreover, in some instances the edutainment field has garnered negative press due to unsubstantiated claims made about the educational merits of products.
Johnson was unfazed. She set about assembling a team of crack commercial games developers and designers, world-renowned cognitive psychologists and learning researchers, plus kids themselves to create a game every bit as captivating as one intended for unabashed entertainment, but steeped in the very latest findings from scientific research.
Three years in the making, “ItzaBitza,” which is being launched today, is the product of a remarkable collaboration between the software industry, academia and end users.
Johnson and her team worked with leading learning scientists across the U.S., but principally Dr. John Bransford, professor of education and psychology at the University of Washington and director of the National Science Foundation-funded Learning in Informal and Formal Environments (LIFE) Center.
The software behind “ItzaBitza” was incubated within Microsoft’s Advanced Strategies unit, before being spun out earlier this year by Microsoft’s IP (Intellectual Property) Ventures program into Sabi, the startup company formed by Johnson and her former Microsoft colleagues Thomas Steinke and Duncan, the game’s lead developer and designer respectively. Sabi worked closely with IP Ventures to incorporate the software into “ItzaBitza.”
“We were inspired by the ‘Harold and the Purple Crayon’ stories,” recounts Johnson. But “ItzaBitza” is more than an open drawing tool. “Children are challenged to read increasingly advanced sentences to figure out what their on-screen character needs, then draw the object with their mouse,” Johnson explains. The images kids draw spring to life as on-screen animations that they can interact with and serve as the basis for quest-style guided-learning scenarios in which they’re prompted to perform progressively more difficult tasks.
After mastering one level, kids proceed to a more advanced one. In its first release, “ItzaBitza” features themed scenarios or “playsets” that offer
kids the opportunity to go on a camping expedition, explore a haunted house, play with rocket ships in outer space or be a farmer, among other virtual adventures.
Margaret Johnson, CEO and co-founder, Sabi Inc.
For Bransford, the effect is nothing less than “magically engaging, with an emphasis on important skills.”
It’s a vindication of the faith he had in the project from the outset. “We could see straight away that the passion of Johnson and her team was not, ‘we want a piece of software to sell,’ but, ‘we really want to solve a problem that hasn’t been cracked before.’”
Bransford and his team of researchers provided input on more than 35 Flash-based interactive concept designs provided by Johnson and her team when they were at Microsoft.
Making It Fun and Educational
One area everyone agreed needed to be front and center was the feel-good fun factor.
“If you don’t have it, you won’t get the interest you need to develop fluency in important skills,” explains Bransford, who credits Johnson and her team with introducing him to the concept of “stickiness,” the sheer addictive appeal of a great game that makes kids want to play it over and over.
The fun part was essential, affirms Johnson, but “ItzaBitza” needed an educational backbone too. “You have to have a really deep knowledge of the learning problems kids are having.”
It wasn’t just learned experts and seasoned game designers that informed the development of “ItzaBitza.” Other key players were children and parents from the Puget Sound community, who put prototypes of the game through their paces under the watchful eye of the creative team of Steinke and Duncan, becoming an integral part of the design and development process.
A critical technological hurdle Steinke and Duncan had to overcome was getting the game to recognize the range of shapes children might draw to represent a specific object.
Dr. John Bransford, professor of education and psychology at the University of Washington, assisted in the game’s development.
To accomplish this, they worked with child psychologist Dr. Erik Strommen, an expert in technology and children’s drawing, to design a software algorithm that anticipated the designs kids might come up with.
Such groundbreaking capabilities translate into formidable competitive advantage in the marketplace, says Sharieff Mansour, director of the IP Ventures program at Microsoft. IP Ventures was founded in 2005 with a charter to open up the fruits of Microsoft’s extensive R&D efforts to entrepreneurs, startups, small businesses and venture capitalists.
It’s thanks to IP Ventures that the technology saw the light of day in the first place.
At the conclusion of its development cycle within Microsoft last November, the company reluctantly passed on pursuing the project any further, deeming the technology outside its core business.
Johnson understood the rationale and wholeheartedly endorsed it from a business standpoint. Personally, it was a different matter.
Labor of Love
The project had become a labor of love. “We really cared about doing this right,” Johnson explains. Plus, she was convinced that her team was onto something big.
Ordinarily, she would have been reassigned to another project, but Johnson wasn’t ready to relinquish “ItzaBitza.” “I couldn’t sleep,” she recalls. “I really believed in the work and recognized that if the vision holders didn’t bring it forward, it would just die. I couldn’t let that happen.”
Johnson, Steinke and Duncan took the bold step of licensing the intellectual property from Microsoft and striking out on their own. In a further measure of conviction, Johnson put her own savings on the line, kicking them in to bankroll an initial angel investment round to get Sabi off the ground.
Keeping the Faith
Another party that wasn’t ready to give up was Microsoft itself. While the “ItzaBitza” technology wasn’t a good fit in-house, the company remained a firm believer in its potential, explains Mansour, who conducted negotiations with Johnson and Sabi.
“Kids are spending more time playing games. ‘ItzaBitza’ provides an engaging gaming experience where the child is learning and exercising creative thinking – and doesn’t even realize it.”
It didn’t hurt that the project commanded the personal support and sponsorship of Microsoft chief research and strategy officer Craig Mundie.
Through the IP Ventures unit, Microsoft became a shareholder in Sabi, and Mansour took an observer seat on its board, in which capacity he dispenses business development advice, helps identify prospective hires, and brokers introductions to key players inside and outside Microsoft.
Sabi is one of six startups formed to date around technologies developed and licensed by Microsoft. Other portfolio companies include Zignals, an online stock-trading service for retail investors, Zumobi, a pioneering mobile marketing platform, and Skinkers, a peer-to-peer service enabling large-scale streaming of live TV over the Internet.
“Microsoft invests $7 billion in R&D annually and as a result we have a huge inventory of cutting-edge innovations to offer entrepreneurs and startups to help jump-start their business,” Mansour explains.
For the future, Sabi’s possibilities are limitless, says Johnson. While “ItzaBitza” was designed for kids ages 4 and older, subsequent games based on the platform will be tailored to older gamers, and the number of playsets that could be developed is infinite. There’s also the opportunity to incorporate well-known children’s characters, she adds.
Sabi’s tagline is “brain games to simulate creative thinking,” she points out, giving the company a broad license to evolve. “This is just the seedling.”
For Bransford, the collective effort behind “ItzaBitza” represents the wave of the future.
“This is how we’re going to make breakthroughs educationally — through small teams that can be innovative and nimble. You want a trusted group of academics that knows how to do research, but also technical expertise, business acumen and people willing to take managed risks. This is how we move things forward.”