‘Honu’ Bringing Augmented Reality to Kids

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A local startup is trying to harness augmented reality technology to help today’s tech-savvy kids learn. “Honu & Friends” is only five months old, but the team is already preparing to release their first product and has launched a Kickstarter campaign to take things to the next level.

The four founders share more than a passion for entrepreneurship and a knack for multimedia.

“It really is a family affair of sorts,” Lance Dacascos Roylo tells me. “Two are brothers and Marlon [Sarmiento] and I are first cousins.”

Cousins Lance and Marlon (a Kaimuki High School grad), and brothers Andy and Raj Bala, have all worked together in some capacity or another before, whether developing products for other companies or in startups. While all four have design backgrounds, Andy and Marlon are web developers, and Raj brings 20 years of experience in augmented reality to the team.

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Unlike virtual reality, which takes over the senses with googles or giant headsets, augmented reality overlays images and information on top of the real world. “Honu and Friends” came together quickly after Lance and Marlon were showing an augmented reality app to some kids at Ala Moana Beach Park.

The enthusiastic response of the children showed them that augmented reality could be a great hook for learning. And “Honu and Friends” pairs the technology with original characters that will be the heart and soul of a series of educational books and apps.

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“Our first product will be an alphabet book that will work along with our mobile apps,” Lance says, noting that while their audience is primarily kids between the ages of three and six, they expect to capture the attention of parents and teachers as well.

“Eventually, we will introduce books/apps that encompass subjects such as math, science, history, geography, et cetera… the list goes on and on,” he adds.

The two parts of the puzzle are a book and the companion app (for either Android or iOS). After launching the app, kids can point the smartphone camera at different pages of the book, and elements on the page come to life on screen. Even better, the book doesn’t have to be printed on paper — the augmented reality technology can be triggered by the pages of an ebook on a tablet.

“There are going to be additional features with the book,” Marlon noted in a recent interview on ThinkTech Hawaii. “For example, there’s going to be an audio file that will phonetically sound out the letters so children can hear what they’re seeing.

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Whether it’s a detailed 3-D rendering of an elephant or whale, or a cartoon illustration, kids will instinctively want to play. And by both seeing and touching these virtual objects, they’re more likely to learn about them.

The founders say that today’s kids are extremely comfortable with modern technology and have shorter and shorter attention spans. From their testing, they found that children already know how to interact with augmented reality, even though it represents today’s cutting edge.

“This is something that’s right up their alley, they’ll pick it up real quick,” Marlon says. “The 3-D is just really going to boggle their minds.”

But it’s Honu the turtle and his other animal companions, created by Marlon, that the team sees as the way to keep kids engaged in the long run.

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“Because technology will always change, we needed something that would always remain a constant. Disney has Mickey Mouse, Warner Bros. has Bugs Bunny, and we have Honu and friends,” he explains. “Having characters that kids can fall in love with, gives us a competitive advantage over other companies currently applying AR to their products.”

Of course, one of those other companies is Google, which is investing heavily in AR (including drawing massive investing interest in Magic Leap).

“We’ve got big competition with Google entering this space, but we’re agile and fast moving so we feel in some ways that we have an advantage,” Lance says.

In fact, Marlon says, augmented reality in general hasn’t been marketed particularly well.

“Hopefully we can break the barrier and market it well for ourselves.”

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To do that, “Honu and Friends” has launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. Their ambitious goal is to raise $25,000 by April 16.

The first alphabet book is nearly done, and the funding would help finish it up. The team is also hoping to invest in research, finding ways to measure how well its young users are learning and to provide parents and teachers with useful metrics.

Backers can get a variety of rewards. A $20 pledge gets you a spiral bound copy of the “ABC” book, while $30 will get you a special card that you can scan to “unlock” an additional “Honu and Friends” character. You can get five cards, two mini games, and a “Honu and Friends” T-shirt for $100, and for $5,000, backers can get an “Ultimate Classroom Visit,” which will bring the team to your school with 10 books and 10 shirts and inclusion of the school’s logo in the app.

There are 20 days left to go. Here’s their Kickstarter video:

Learn more and become a backer of Honu’s Alphabet Wonder on Kickstarter. Check out the website at HonuAndFriends.com, or connect with the project on Facebook, on Twitter, on Instagram, and on YouTube.

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