Earlier this fall, Microsoft announced that its Xbox 360 would soon offer special games and TV shows associated with several well-known children’s programs, including Sesame Street and Nat Geo Wild. The plan, says Microsoft, is to create shows that would foster a new kind of “playful learning,” tying them to the capabilities of the Microsoft Kinect device.
The timing of the news wasn’t great: the same day Microsoft unveiled its new toddler-friendly Kinect games, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a report urging no or limited screen time for children under age 2.
But bringing the Kinect to children’s television is an intriguing proposition. Microsoft say that it’s filming new TV shows and building new games that “seek to inspire kids and their parents to get off the couch and into the action, working cooperatively with their favorite characters to have fun and learn at the same time.” Fun, learning and even physical activity are often invoked when it comes to children’s programming — and it’s something that the American Academy of Pediatrics challenges us to think about: while the shows might tout educational content, research actually suggests there are some negative consequences of TV on toddlers’ development.
Of course, Sesame Street, while geared at young children (those in preschool and early elementary levels), is aimed at those older than age two. But the cautionary note the American Academy of Pediatrics makes is still worth considering.
Yet the Kinect does add a new twist to children’s television viewing. The Kinect is a motion-sensing input device for the Xbox 360 game console. That means that with it, users can control their video games — and now their television shows — without having to use a game controller. Instead, the Kinect senses bodies, gestures and voice, and by using the “controller-free magic of Kinect,” says Alex Games, educational design director for Microsoft, “we can encourage kids to use their motor skills and to learn using their body in immersive experiences.”
With the new programs, television and play will be combined in order to promote a different level of engagement, according to Microsoft. With “Kinect Sesame Street TV,” kids will be able to help Cookie Monster with specific tasks, and he’ll respond to their gestures and to their voices. Of course, Sesame Street characters have always addressed viewers directly, speaking though the screen to those watching at home. The show has long asked children to sing or count along with them. But with the Kinect, the characters will now actually be able to interact more, gauging for example if a child gets the wrong answer to a question that it has posed.
This more embodied type of learning, mediated through computing devices, is something that the 2011 Horizon Report pegged as one of the key trends to watch in education technology. Although the Horizon Report said that “gesture-based computing” was still four or five years away from mainstream classroom adoption, we’re certainly seeing strong indications of what this will look like via new consumer electronics devices. It’s evident in the multitouch interface of an iPad, for example, or with the voice-input of Siri and the new iPhone 4S, or with the body-control of the Kinect. It’s clear from these examples that the future of our computing devices likely won’t demand input from a keyboard and mouse.
And if the new children’s programming with the Microsoft Kinect and Sesame Street are any indication, the future of television will likely look quite different too.