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You are here: MacNN Forums > News > Tech News > Hands On: Osmo, a Tangible Play system (iPad)

Hands On: Osmo, a Tangible Play system (iPad)
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Jun 13, 2015, 01:31 PM
We really enjoy it when a developer takes advantage of the fantastic technology we have today while still grounding an experience in our own physical space. Osmo does just that and does it nicely. The Osmo system uses an angled mirror clipped over the front-facing FaceTime camera alongside a stand, and coupled with free iPad apps to make the area directly in front of the iPad an active virtual and real-world play space. The combo is a very simple way of going about it, but the results can be magical.

Osmo sets up super easy. We were able to adjust the stand for our iPad Mini 2 easily, and the red "lens" pops right on. When starting up one of the apps, the user will be prompted to properly align it with a guide at the top of the screen if it happens to be off set at all. For two of the apps, Words for Osmo (1.15.8) and Tangram for Osmo (1.14.4), the system comes with a set of physical props needed to play. While the other two currently available apps, Newton for Osmo (1.10.3) and Masterpiece for Osmo (1.9.13) require the user supply their own writing surface and pen.

We used to play with Tangrams a lot as a kid with a particular friend, so the fact that Osmo ships with a set got us right in the nostalgia bone. A Tangram is a puzzle that uses a standard set of differently shaped pieces; using those limited tools the user is challenged to create a recognizable form such as a bunny or a person sitting on a box. The app starts things off very simply, giving the user an example form to copy in full color. The set that comes with Osmo is color-coded, so the forms presented to the user to build show how the pieces should fit together. As the user sets out the pieces where the Osmo/iPad can see them, they brighten on the screen. Completing a shape adds to a "bank" of possible hints to use in future tries and opens up new – read "more difficult" – forms to try. As the forms get more complex the colors are changed to grayscale and eventually removed until the user is left with a solid black silhouette to copy.

We liked how the system quickly recognized the pieces and reflected our progress on the screen. In the lower levels it even gave some free hints, such as telling us that a particular piece needed to be flipped for it to be in the correct orientation. The kids we showed it to liked not only playing the game of figuring out how to copy the form, but in identifying what the form is supposed to be. The horse was a particular favorite, and the person sitting on the box was clearly sad but we don't know why.

The next app we tried was Words, which is basically a game of hangman. The system comes with two sets of alphabet tiles, one in red and one in blue. A picture is shown having to do with a word that needs to be guessed. The number of letters in the word is shown with bubbles on the bottom of the screen while the top contains a limited number of slots for incorrect guesses. Players take turns laying down their red or blue tiles and the app identifies which tile from which team has been played and indicates if it's correct or wrong. Any number of players can play Words, but we like it best with two teams of a couple people each. The game comes with libraries of words in English, French, Italian, and German. More libraries are available for free via a link in the app.

Words was fun, but sometimes it took a while for the app to recognize the letter tiles. The kids seemed to enjoy it up to a point, but then some of the adults decided to try and play in German which was very amusing. Words wasn't quite as enchanting as the other apps for the Osmo unfortunately, particularly since a number of the participants didn't think the picture always matched the word it was trying to communicate very well.

Newton generated quite a bit of excitement. We started off using paper and a pen, but quickly realized that a whiteboard was much better for this activity – at least at first. Newton is so named because it's a game of falling dots. The player draws lines and curves in the play area to bounce and slide those dots in the direction of one or more targets. The dots make noise as the bounce around, it becomes quite musical and after a while we were more interested in composing a song with them than getting them to the targets.

The "ah hah" moment came when one of the dots bounced off the line drawn by the app around the edge of the pen we were using to draw a line. The playfield on the screen is a filtered view of what the camera sees, so if an object comes into view, like a pen or a hand, the app will attempt to find edges and render them as lines the dots will bounce off of. So eventually play devolved from drawing lines to placing toothpicks and then just using our hands.

Masterpiece was our favorite, though it's the least conducive to being a group activity. The user sets a piece of paper down in front of the tablet in the Osmo stand. The app displays not only a view of the paper but light red lines. The user needs to keep an eye on the screen as they use the red lines to guide their drawing on the paper. While the app comes with a selection of line drawings, pictures can also be taken or imported from the camera roll; the app will then find the edges and convert the photo into a line drawing for the user to trace using the app.

It takes some practice to be able to draw on the paper while only looking at the screen. At first we kept glancing at the paper for a "better look" but there was nothing to get a better look at because the red lines are only on the screen. We also had a little trouble with the Tutorial which draws the lines of a dog individually and wants you to follow along in the order the lines appear, this is because we're left handed and the tutorial was apparently designed for a righty. Thankfully, that's not how it works in the actual app, the lines are all there and the user draws them in whatever direction or order that comes natural.

Overall, we think the Osmo is a pretty cool use for an iPad. The frame itself is pretty simple and isn't technologically tied to the Osmo apps which don't cost any extra. While we don't think the apps would be much use without the frame, we could see the frame coming in to play for other uses. We like the potential inherent in that.
Osmo has an MSRP of $80 and can be purchased directly from their website or from online retailers.

Osmo is for:
Families with an iPad and kids, particularly kids with an artistic streak.

Osmo might not be for:
People looking for art apps, for themselves or their children, but want something a little more beefy than Masterpiece can provide. Overly physical children.

- Michelle Elbert (@mcelbert)
( Last edited by NewsPoster; Jun 13, 2015 at 01:33 PM. )
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