Mike Horn, Northwestern Alum Collaborate on Newly Released Game

Mike Horn, Northwestern Alum Collaborate on Newly Released Game

CodingWhen Felix Hu was a student at Northwestern, he worked with assistant professor Michael Horn on an educational game to teach young children computer programming. The game, called Coding, was just released as a commercial product for the Osmo system by Tangible Play, where Hu now works.

Through hands-on research with kids, Horn and Hu tested and refined the design of the game, which at the time was called Strawbies. Intended for 5- to 10-year-olds, the iPad app allows children to use coding blocks to guide a charming little character called Awbie on a quest for strawberries through a colorful, fun-filled world. A unique feature of the game is that it uses colorful snap-together blocks with coding commands to make creating code easy for young kids. With a push of a button, Awbie starts on his search.

When Hu, who graduated from Northwestern in computer science in 2014, took a job at Tangible Play, he was able to offer his project from Horn’s Tangible Interaction Design and Learning Laboratory (TIDAL Lab). The game uses the company’s Osmo gaming system for the iPad, along with TopCode computer vision library and a web camera attachment for the iPad that reads the commands on the coding blocks.

Felix HuJust released on May 25, Coding looks very similar to the way it looked when it was Strawbies as a TIDAL Lab project. TIDAL Lab focuses on creating and studying innovative technology-based experiences in tangible, or hands-on, learning.

Horn describes the game as an “engaging and portable tangible programming environment.” His design process with Hu involved three major revisions of the game that they tested with children, parents and teachers. They continually refined the game to make it as inviting and educational as possible. The design principles the researchers followed were to make the game inviting, open-ended, simple, responsive, developmentally appropriate, pedagogically aligned, social and adaptable.

After graduating, Hu continued to work on the tangible programming project in his free time with Horn and Ariel Zekelman, a School of the Art Institute student. A year later, they contacted Osmo about the project. “To our surprise, Osmo was really interested in the video that we sent, and invited us to show the game in Palo Alto. Two weeks after showing them the game, they hired us. Six months later, we launched the game in the Apple Store, Amazon and Best Buy,” Hu says.

Hu credits Horn for introducing them to the world of tangible design for kids. He explains, “Without him we would have never had the idea that sparked Osmo Coding. During the year of working on the game after graduating, we met with Mike often. Osmo Coding is hugely influenced by his vast experience in the field of tangible design for kids.”

Mike HornHorn and Hu tested the game during six play sessions at two local schools. In each school they tested within two types of environments: a private space with two children at a time and an open environment with many kids coming and going. In a paper about the design process, they reported that young children found the game rewarding and “a place for lively and quick­-paced spontaneity, in a game of thoughtful strategy. Most play testers wanted to play more when told that their time was up.”

Undergraduates continue to be involved in the TIDAL Lab’s design research, and a new undergraduate learning sciences major at SESP offers the potential for undergraduates to be involved through their major.

Horn is an assistant professor in both the Computer Science and the Learning Sciences programs at Northwestern. His research considers the intersection of human-computer interaction and learning with a focus on thoughtful uses of emerging technologies in diverse learning settings. Some of Horn's other projects have included an investigation of multi-touch tabletops in natural history museums and the use of tangible programming languages in kindergarten classrooms and science museums.

Photos: (Top) Osmo Coding photo courtesy of Tangible Play, (center) Northwestern alumnus Felix Hu, (below) SESP assistant professor Mike Horn.

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 5/31/16