Earth: The Educational App

on Thursday, Jul. 23rd

You don’t expect to find yourself looking at educational e-books at the Electronic Entertainment Expo—the leading trade show in video games—let alone being impressed by one.

That’s exactly what happened when I toured the Indiecade booth this year and found myself talking with Chaim Gingold, the creator of Earth Primer, a “science book for playful people” that uses data visualization techniques to create an interactive educational book on geology.

The work is part of the growing field of educational technology, which is having a renaissance in these App Store times. Earth Primer is made for iPads, and the touch based interface lets users explore the concepts that underpin geology. Instead of just reading about how the Earth works, Gingold’s app shows us. It’s kind of mesmerizing.

After E3 I reached back to Gingold (via the magic of email) to find out a little more about the development of the app, how his time as a games designer influenced what he does, and his take on the current state of EduTech.

TURNSTYLE: One of the things we talked at E3 was how your work at Maxis on Spore played in to Earth Primer… I wanted to visit that. How does your background in games shape how you LOOK at educational tools?

Chaim Gingold: My games background makes me very focused on experience and playfulness. If you don’t have an engaging experience then you don’t have anything. And Maxis titles, of course, aren’t even traditional games, so I think we have to look even deeper to find what makes these kinds of experiences tick. I think it has to do with playfulness, experiential learning, and the aesthetics of experience. Games draw upon this deep well of human experience and design craft, but I think that simulation toys and learning tools can and should, too, which is exactly what I tried to do with Earth Primer.

TS: How long was the development process on Earth Primer?

CG: A long time, but it’s hard to give an exact answer because of how development proceeded! An early version of Earth Primer (called GeoBook) was an IndieCade 2011 finalist, but I also started a PhD after submitting that, so development interleaved with that over the next few years. It released in early 2015, and I spent a little over nine months focused on it full time before that. (I’m now back to PhD research full time, which is about play, design, and SimCity.) But that 2011 submission was the unintended outcome of a few years of indie game development work on an overly ambitious game that ultimately morphed into Earth Primer. At some point I tried to rescue it by focusing on geology simulation, and turning that into a game. I was struggling with making a geology puzzle game when I realized, after Bret Victor showed me the work he was doing on the iPad version of Our Choice, that perhaps I was making a book and not a game.

TS: This kind of interactivity involves a lot of “feel”—do you go back and forth tweaking the “touch” aspect of the UI?

CG: Absolutely. Feel is crucial, and the flat UI elements are just the beginning of it. It’s the dynamic response of a program—code, animation, and sound—that crafts the magical feeling of touch. As a designer I’m very focused on the aesthetics of touch and feel. When working on the Spore Creature Creator I was intent on making sure even the most minor interactions were pleasurable and tactile. Earth Primer was a cool project to think about this with, because I was crafting the feel of playing with nature at a geological time scale.

TS: How much of the development process for Earth Primer involved testing and feedback with students?

CG: I’m a big believer in play testing, and I did a lot of that with my friends and colleagues. I didn’t do a lot of focused testing on students, but I did pay very close attention to what the geologists and educators said.

Do you see this kind of interactive data visualization working with other educational topics?

Yes, absolutely. My hope is that Earth Primer inspires others to do this, and can also serve as a repository of design ideas for others to make use of.

TS: What else in the “Edu-Tech” scene is intriguing you?

CG: I’m a fan of Dragon Box and how it transforms algebra into a symbol manipulation toy. I draw inspiration from a wide variety of sources. Something I’m particularly interested in right now is Doreen Nelson’s City Building Education, and how she uses role playing, construction, and cities as some of the raw materials for powerful educational experiences. There are no computers involved, however, but it is deeply grounded in experiential learning.

TS: Looking ahead: do you see virtual reality/augmented reality being used for work similar to Earth Primer?

CG: Yes, I think it can. But I think the main bottleneck isn’t technology as much as design, production resources, and the market for these kinds of experiences.


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