Merging the digital and physical worlds is not just for scientists, technologists, content creators, and grown-ups. In fact, future sci-tech pioneers (AKA kids) are getting in on truly immersive experiences once only available to adults.
With more than $2 billion invested in augmented and virtual reality over the past year and $800 million of it invested in Q2 2017, it’s no surprise that VR and AR continue to grow. But issues like affordability, access, and content are still big challenges in the way of mass adoption. One Texas-based company, Merge, is spearheading efforts to check all three boxes by creating a kid-friendly VR/AR ecosystem.
The Merge ecosystem is comprised of Merge VR/AR Goggles; the Merge Miniverse, housing education and entertaining content; and the Merge Cube, which has been named the “world’s first holographic object you can hold in the palm of your hand.”
A full kid-friendly VR and AR ecosystem didn’t happen overnight. Founder and CEO of Merge, Franklin Lyons, has been creating AR/VR experiences for nearly a decade. He founded Merge in 2014, at a time when there wasn’t an entire VR ecosystem developed for any demographic in the broad consumer market, let alone kids.
Merge was the first company to make a mobile VR app—and the choice to make the app future-compatible with Google proved fortuitous; the eventual launch of Google Cardboard shook up the industry and helped make VR more accessible to many different markets, including children.
Lyons wants technology to be approachable, fun and kid-friendly—with the goal of evoking a sense of wonder and magic. Each product he and his team build is rooted in this long-term strategy.
“The next great frontier is virtual and augmented reality, and it’s the kids of today that are the future creators, thinkers, and innovators,” said Lyons. “They will shape the future of VR/AR, and we’re making our products for them.”
Creating a Kid-Friendly Ecosystem
When creating any product or experience, the Merge team starts by imagining what a kid’s room might look like in the future. They break things down and build them back up by asking questions, trying to examine and explore from all angles. How will they live, play, and connect?
Merge is a family-focused organization, the majority of the team have kids themselves—and they are included in the process from user testing to user feedback that help create products that are filled with wonder and delight. Additionally, every week groups of kids and their parents are invited into Merge’s office for user testing to ensure that Merge is staying in sync with what kids want, and what they need to learn and develop in a healthy way.
Based on insights from kids, parents, and market adoption, Merge focused first on rolling out the Merge VR/AR Goggles and Merge Miniverse forming the foundation of the ecosystem.
Merge Miniverse AR App provides access to new content, curated by the Merge team, that enables kids to play games, see a concert of their favorite band in the front row, travel around the world, learn about the universe and beyond. Kids can also explore 360 Videos and 3D Models.
Some of the most popular kid-friendly experiences include Diving Exploration of Kelp Forest Aquarium, Star Wars Rogue One Recon, Transformers the Last Knight, NASA Astronaut Training Space Walk, and Cardio VR.
All of the Merge Miniverse apps are handpicked by the Merge team of VR/AR experts to ensure that each experience has been tested for quality, and includes ratings for age appropriateness, motion intensity and customer reviews. Some content might check all of those boxes, however Merge rejects apps that show advertisements or have aggressive in-app purchases.
“We take kids’ privacy very seriously,” said Lyons. “None of the apps we’ve created in-house collect private information, and account setup for the Merge Miniverse requires a parent’s email address. Whatever we do, we will always be transparent.”
XR in IRL
Additionally, Merge recently launched the Merge Cube, an educational and entertaining hologram that you can hold in your hand. The Merge Cube works with the goggles and ranges from playing fun games to learning about the human body.
In order to continue innovation in the VR and AR space, Merge is open to the development community and encourages people to contribute to the creating the future of play. Founder and CEO of Merge, Franklin Lyons stated, “We recently set aside $1 million to help bring other developers’ ideas to life (the Merge AR|VR Developer Fund). We’re committed to supporting their vision and want to invest in the developer community by helping make their ideas a reality.”
Merge is also working on educating kids and teachers and continuing to merge the physical and digital worlds from publishing guides on how to make Merge Cube apps to launching future products and experiences.
According to Lyons “When we see kids with big smiles on their faces telling their friends about VR/AR and Merge, that’s a win for us and for the industry.”
Creating the ecosystem is the first step, Merge is working to enhance it through partnerships with school districts, museums, third-party developers, big brands in the entertainment industry, and more to enable everyone to create and shape the future of play while merging our physical and digital worlds.