Environmental Education Comes To Life On Steam

At the annual AppFest event in San Francisco, I met a CEO and game developer who is applying game based learning to environmental education in a game called Tyto Ecology. Although I’m mostly involved in the world of mobile apps, I was curious about this title because in addition to her iPad app, she also launched Tyto Ecology on Steam, which is a PC gaming environment.

What is Steam?

Steam is a digital distribution platform for PC games, which also offers multiplayer and social networking features for its community. It can be accessed at http://store.steampowered.com, and requires a software installation for Steam software and for any purchased games.

According to an article on GeekSquad, 70% of PC gaming since 2012 has been Steam powered. Instead of using a game console or CD/DVD, I’m starting to think of Steam as a gamer’s cloud, or a gaming environment that enables downloads, gaming and account management from a central online marketplace.

Tyto Ecology on Steam PC Gaming Platform

How do you play Tyto Ecology?

Tyto Ecology is about building and managing your own ecosystem. As the player, you can choose between desert, rainforest, and grassland habitats. These habitats, or biomes, have certain species like predators, prey, pollinators and decomposers which construct the game dynamics. Can you keep the mix in balance? Will the environment you create die or thrive? The process of constructing a sustainable environment represents how the game supports active problem solving.

The tools and information for managing environments are aligned with academic science standards. Every species added to the game has a data profile, along with data tools and statistics to manage the biome’s health.

Why pay attention to Immersed Games?

Tyto Ecology is made by Immersed Games, and I think it’s interesting to see their vision beyond this standalone game. Their goal is to build out Tyto Online, a massively multiplayer online game where players complete quests. These players would be Tyto Academy Students who are recruited to help scientists build life on a new planet. 

In my opinion, the concept of Tyto Academy sounds incredibly appealing to explore sustainable life on earth! Although my kids are not avid PC gamers, Tyto Ecology is a point of entry I would consider to build our experience with connected online games.

Lorraine Akemann | Cofounder and Editor | Moms With Apps

Photo Credit Flickr [Adam Schweigert]

How High School Students Are Solving The World’s Problems

This month I was invited to be a judge for the Congressional App Challenge. The App Challenge is a coding competition for high school students put in place to help support STEM education. Our district (the 18th Congressional District) received ten entries to be evaluated on parameters such as creativity, innovation, technical expertise and app design.


What I thought would be a simple review of app demos turned into an inspiring connection with today’s talented youth. As a parent myself, I sometimes worry about what high school will be like for my own children. The App Challenge eased some of those concerns by introducing me to students who are thriving and succeeding at real world problem solving.

Let’s read, for example, the topics they addressed:

Food waste

Equal access for college preparatory testing

Safe and undistracted driving

Political education through interactive competition

Food nutrition

Tools for helping after a car accident

Community service

Volunteer work

Teacher/student communication

Student empowerment

Feel free to read the list again to become even more inspired. All ten entries focused squarely on important issues and social betterment. These apps are designed to help make us safer, healthier, better educated, and more socially conscious. After watching the presentations and reading details about how the apps were constructed, I began to envision the entrants not just as students but as teams of skilled entrepreneurs.

The high school app makers demonstrated a range of technical expertise by coding in a variety of languages including Apple’s Swift 2.0. They also exhibited marketing savvy with cool app names and well designed app icons (which make a big difference in how professional the app looks in app stores). Innovations in app design came through with sleek user interfaces, database integration, and the use of application programming interfaces to perform specific functions.

A public reception to announce the winner will be held on Monday February 22nd at Palo Alto City Hall. The entries can be viewed here https://www.challenge.gov/challenge/congressional-app-challenge-ca-18-rep-eshoo/, and the winning app will be displayed in our nation’s Capital Building for a year.

Although the nature of competition is to measure one idea against another, I consider this entire group of submissions as winners because of their positive influence on others. May they all be successful in future app endeavors!

With encouragement,

Lorraine Akemann | Cofounder and Editor | Moms With Apps

Children’s Apps With Hand-Drawn Illustrations Always Catch My Attention

This year’s Dust or Magic conference on children’s interactive media did not disappoint. Fascinating speakers aside, one of my favorite experiences was sitting with developers to preview their creations. Lingering on my mind are three apps which share a common theme: they all include elements of hand-drawn illustrations. Compared to traditional graphic art, this softer form of craftsmanship always catches my attention. I’d be curious if you think similarly after scrolling through…

Yuri and the Flying Squid




Nicky’s Make Believe Castle



I think these illustrations show successful incorporation of human elements (like drawing, painting and doodling) into digital media. This human touch builds my engagement with the app because I want to look at all of the art on each page, activity or scene.

The stories behind each app are fascinating. Yuri and the Flying Squid was produced by a mother-son team. The son produced the app by digitally remastering graphics from his mother’s illustrations which were scanned over the Atlantic from Spain to New York. Attributes was programmed and graphically designed by a dedicated father and math advocate. Every element in the app is his original artwork. Make Believe Castle was brought to the iPad from an award-winning 1990’s computer based game. The founder’s grandchild inspired this latest rendition.

Thank you to the creators of these beautiful works for children. It may take quite a bit of effort, but families sure do appreciate it!

NOTE: It is very difficult to discuss hand-drawn apps without mentioning the amazing Roxie Monroe. If you haven’t heard of Roxie, please visit her website. In addition, the My Play Home series of apps have always been a favorite of mine, particularly because of the illustrations.

@LorraineAkemann | Cofounder and Editor | Moms With Apps

Did You Say You Make Apps For Kids?

If you make apps for kids, or are involved in children’s interactive media, I’d like to talk about Dust or Magic and the role it plays in this space.

Warren Buckleitner, Editor of Children’s Technology Review, knows how to gather captivating minds to demonstrate, debate and discuss product design for children and how it relates to child development. He organized the first Dust or Magic in 2001 on the tailwind of Bologna Book Fair’s New Media Prize. He followed up by adding App Camp every spring in Monterey, California, starting in 2009.

While there is no shortage of conferences on kids and tech, Dust or Magic stands out in the crowd. This might be because attendees are required to leave their egos at home, or cast them into the ocean until the sessions are finished. Or it might be that Warren chooses down-home locations where attendees can relax and brainstorm freely. But the real reason might be that Warren is one of those people who really gets kids, and he is doing his best to keep the experience authentic — for their sake.

To focus on the interests of children, no sponsorships are allowed at Dust or Magic. This means attendees need to foot the bill. Out of pocket expenses can be high for an independent developer or small company. Warren recognizes this and tries to work with small publishers. In fact, he or someone in the office answers a real land-line phone just to hear those pleas.

Dust or Magic conference agendas brim with storytelling from a range of kids’ tech experts and pioneers. What I admire most about the speakers is their inclination to share failures as much as successes. These mistakes help us learn about Dust to better understand how Magic is made. The archives of past App Camps give you a flavor of who spoke on which topics, along with videos of memorable presentations (like this one from Dan Russell-Pinson about Letting Magic Happen).

I first found out about Dust or Magic back in 2010. Caroline Hu Flexer, founder of Duck Duck Moose, let me know about the conference through Moms With Apps. Living in the Bay Area, it was easy for me to make a trip to Monterey for the pre-conference demo sessions (now called AppFest). I enjoyed taking my girls along to test apps and provide feedback to the app makers. I popped in again for a brief panel in 2012, and later during the 2014 and 2015 AppFests at the the CoLab offices in San Francisco.

Although I usually just mingle on the conference periphery, I don’t hesitate to promote Dust or Magic to newcomers in the app world. The 15th Annual Dust or Magic will be held November 1st — 3rd in Lambertville, New Jersey. The agenda from Warren sounds timely and compelling:

“We have a lot to talk about this year. The iPad Pro has expanded screen size, opening new play patterns, and several Virtual Reality devices are ready to be launched. These will be discussed in a review of the year panel with Chris Byrne of Time to Play magazine; followed by a banquet and special talk by Muppet legends Michael Frith and Kathryn Mullen.”

Warren goes on to highlight new guests from the Parents’ Choice Foundation, New York Times, and MIT’s Education Arcade, along with top-notch industry veterans and app makers. This includes a presentation from Caroline about their new app, WonderBox. Reviewing the agenda while writing this post is making me rethink where I want to spend my November birthday this year. New Jersey sounds nice.

Keeping the child’s well being at the top of any conference agenda is a laudable goal to accomplish. Warren continues to get this priority right, every time.

@LorraineAkemann | Cofounder and Editor | Moms With Apps

Developer Exchange: A Conversation for Kids’ App Makers

developers banner-01

If you make apps for kids, summer is a great time to catch up on the year’s industry news. Whether you are brushing up on iOS 8 and Apple’s new programming language, evaluating “Family Sharing“, reading about the latest App Store changes, or just figuring out when to launch your app – the Developer Exchange provides a hub for these discussion topics. There is plenty of work to be done before back-to-school, and no need to go it alone. Write us at hello@momswithapps.com with your Facebook email address and we will send you an invitation to the forum.

Made In Finland: A new tool to help us visualize fractions, decimals and percentages

Esa Helttula of iDevBooks is coming out with a new app on October 7th: Visual Fractions Decimals and Percentages for iPad. What I find exciting about his “visual” series of math apps is that they let you explore numeric relationships in an open ended fashion. In other words, they let you experiment with numbers.


This summer I was fortunate enough to meet Esa in person during my family’s summer vacation. After showing us around Helsinki for a day, we sat down for a cup of tea at the hotel. I guess you could call it an “international app meet-up”, because he immediately brought out his iPad to let me preview his work. Esa is an independent app developer living in Finland, with an extensive background in computer science and math education. His family participates with product development, and his apps have been very well received in educational institutions around the globe. Sometimes I think it helps to put a face to a name: here we are outside of the Espoo Museum of Modern Art, shortly before he showed me the latest apps…


Some people call me crazy for making this blog my hobby over the past several years, but Esa is the type of person who inspires me to keep going. You see, apps don’t grow on trees. They are hand-made from the ground up, with hundreds of programming hours that go into each and every tap and swipe. Because of people like Esa, children will have a diverse set of tools for understanding math within reach.

To see his app in action, here is a 1 minute and 43 second demo video. He made it under two minutes especially for you, because he knows parents are short on time. 🙂  I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. More information about the app is available on his website: http://idevbooks.com/apps/visual_fractions.php.


An observation about Apple’s new “Kids” category

On iOS7 launch day I was able to download Apple’s new iOS to my iPad Mini. My first stop was the App Store to check out the new “Kids” category.


I noticed a selection of familiar developers featured in the Kids category, many of whom have worked hard to build apps that kids really love. My hope is that over time, more and more developers will be featured in this category, because this section of the App Store is fun and vibrant and made with content “just for kids”.

I also noticed a selection of developers who I could not find in the Kids category, but who had, after a lot of effort to make their apps work with the new Apple Review Guidelines for Kids, gotten their apps accepted by Apple.

At this point, unfortunately, accepted does not mean selected. It looks like submitting your app with the new “Kids” designation, even upon acceptance, does not guarantee placement in the Kids section of the store. Apparently access to this section of the store, at least for now, depends on being selected by Apple for inclusion.

I wanted to share it in case it impacts your business planning.


Rejected by Apple? You’re Not Alone.



App submissions to the new kids’ category on the iTunes App Store are undergoing intense scrutiny. As described in this earlier post, new review guidelines require “parental gates” for any links that take a user outside of the app or for features intended for commerce. This <<could>> mean functions like Rate This App, Visit Our Website, or Buy This Thing need to be in a specific “For Parents” section, and roadblocked by something more than a simple tap of the screen. What methods are being accepted? What methods are being rejected? It’s a time of trial and error, resulting in a lot of guesswork from developers. So if you’re app has been rejected recently, I’m just writing to say that you’re not alone.

We are starting to track case studies in our Facebook Developer Exchange. If you are a kids’ app developer and want to join the conversation, email me at lorraineakemann@gmail.com and I’ll send you an invitation (it’s a private group).

Data is being compiled by Sara Kloek of the Association for Competitive Technology. Sara represents kids’ app developers in Washington DC, and she advocates for folks like us who need clear answers to move forward on making great content for kids and families.

Sara Kloek @actonline

How are kids’ app developers communicating to parents?

App makers have a lot on their mind these days. Since July 1st they have been submitting updates to comply with new Children’s Online Privacy Protection regulations. Just last week, they were informed about Apple’s new review guidelines.

One of the guidelines mentioned the need for parental precautions before linking outside of the app (i.e., before clicking a link to services beyond the app). Some developers have solved this by having link-free apps. Others want to communicate product information to parents, such as “more apps” or “share” features. So how do they do this, and what will be acceptable to Parents, Kids, Apple, and the Regulators?

The answers may be a work in process, but here are some examples I’ve seen from our community of family-friendly developers.

1) Real Fun Learning has parents solve multiple equations to enter the parent section.


77Sparx asks if you are an adult, and verifies with a math equation.


JumpApp labels the parent section, and will only open it if the user presses & holds (not just taps)


Anlock Apps also does a press & hold feature

iOS Simulator Screen shot Sep 3, 2013 12.14.59 AM

Avokiddo labels “for parents” and also has the press & hold feature.


Justin’s World has a toddler app with a really prominent parental gate, as shown here:


Curious Hat’s new InfiniScroll app has a “press and hold” that comes up when a grown-up section of the app is tapped:


This gate technique from Electric Eggplant just got accepted (date Sept. 9) into the age 9-11 kids category on the app store:

Screenshot 2013.09.08 00.38.58

This “timed” implementation from Get Shiny Things looks like an interesting idea!


From Bethany at Lunapip, the password function got approved as a gate in her app (details in comments of post). Congrats Bethany!


Here is Brent’s solution from Pretendasaurus


Now I’ve heard some backlash that these methods won’t necessarily stop a savvy child from accessing the parent services. But to me, these seem like good faith ideas at designating different content for different audiences, which is a constant challenge in the apps for kids marketplace. If you have more examples (or updates about what’s working and what’s not), please let me know so I can update the post.

UPDATE March 26th, 2014: Apple provides some guidelines of their own: https://developer.apple.com/app-store/parental-gates/


Mobile Apps: Tools We Wish We Had


Our panel at the Women in Technology Summit on “Creating Killer Apps” – From left, Nikita Kapoor of Sprite Labs, Libby Roin of Polk Street Press, and Jennifer Wong of Alt12 Apps. Moderated by Lorraine Akemann of Moms With Apps. 

The most interesting part about moderating our WITISummit panel, aside from the amazing panelists themselves, were their ideas for improving the app ecosystem. So many useful snippets were flying around that almost ditched my microphone to grab a seat in the audience.

After discussing standard topics about app launches, tips for success, and challenges, we tackled this:

“What tools, in terms of app creation or app marketing, don’t exist yet that you wish existed? “

Oh, you could hear a pin drop! Their eyes lit up as they each had a chance to describe dream tools for apps.

1) Targeted Promotions

One thing we need (said Libby) is the ability to offer app promotions to particular groups of users. For example, wouldn’t it be great if a puzzle app could run a promotion with a toy store, or if a toddler app could run a promotion with a car seat manufacturer. Their customers would benefit from exclusive access to a free or discounted app, to generate buzz and word of mouth.  The reality is that any price change on current app store platforms are uniform to all customers across the platform. There is no programmatic audience segmentation that is easily accessible, aside from a few promo codes.

2) Crowdsourced Beta Testing 

Another thing we need (said Nikita) is a way to manage beta testing in a more uniform fashion. It is always a challenge to find app testers and solicit quality feedback while preparing to finalize and launch your app. If a preexisting captive audience of app testers were readily available for developers, the burden of finding beta test groups would ease up. Jennifer likened this to a “Task Rabbit for App Testing”.

3) Public performance metrics for apps

In the web world (says Jennifer, literally), sites like Compete and Quantcast provide insight on web metrics and performance of a website. I’d love to see one for native mobile apps. One of the biggest challenges as a small developer is reaching key media/brand stakeholders and media buyers are looking to do advertising or partnership deals their exact demographic. Providing public facing, opt-in analytics will provide transparency in the mobile app space and perhaps reward apps with engagement and traction. [Jennifer’s comments made me think about the value of Consumer Reports when making a purchasing decision, or looking at Alexa rankings when trying to evaluate a web site.]

Given we were limited on time, and couldn’t march off to a pitch competition in the middle of the conference, we settled for sharing some of the tools the panelists would recommend for making Killer Apps… [keep in mind, kids’ app developers, that 3rd party tools integrated in-app need to be COPPA compliant.]

And my favorite – the “Slow Engine” – by Jennifer Wong

“Slow Engine” is what I refer to when building a community, it is like a slow moving engine. It’s a heavy and large undertaking to get moving in the early stages (and often feels like you’re not getting very far) but once it’s in motion it can be very powerful in fueling movement and growth in your app. So I always tell new developers to focus on making movement with a small but quality audience. 100 hyper-engaged users is far more valuable than 1000 users that downloaded your app once and never use it again. Those 100 users could mean a multiple of 10 or 20 if they love your app. The WOM (word of mouth) engine we have with our apps was built over time. Once we reached a critical mass of around 1M downloads we started to really feel the impact.

Thanks again to these fabulous panelists for sharing their expertise.