Majestyk’s Fang: Educational Potential of IBM’s Watson

Majestyk Apps, a recent winner of the IBM Watson Mobile Developer’s Challenge, describes itself as a “full-service digital agency”. However, its winning concept in the Challenge, which could have far-reaching implications for the future of education of youth, is far beyond the scope of typical agency activity.

Majestyk has come up with a design for an educational toy, intended to evolve with a child, drawing on the cognitive computing powers of Watson. The Majestyk platform for this toy is dubbed Fang (Friendly Anthropomorphic Networked Genome) and the first product will be a soft, cuddly doll embodying voice recognition and response capability, using natural language and drawing on the Watson platform for access to massive, interractive logic and data processing.

We discussed the background of the Fang concept recently with CEO Donald Coolidge and Director of Infrastructure J. P. Benini. How does a digital agency become a producer of an advanced educational toy? Coolidge stated that they had been interested in smart toys for some time and had launched a previous toy product, which provided them with a learning curve regarding the toy industry and marketplace.

Driving the development of Fang is a deep interest in education. Coolidge believes that the combination of learning and play can be very effective in children’s education. He describes it as a “step away from standardized testing,” which, he says, doesn’t reveal the full extent of an individual’s intellect.

While the Majestyk team believes that smart toys can be effective in promoting education, they view previous early products in the industry as very limited. “Toys don’t adapt,” states Coolidge, “and children outgrow them fast. The issue is how do you keep kids engaged for longer.”

They believe that what is necessary is a combination of learning and play where the toy is personalized to the child and grows with the child. They had thought of the concept before they thought of getting engaged with Watson. But when they spoke to Watson, the sparks started to fly and it created a sense of excitement on both sides.

Participating in the Challenge involved what Benini describes as a “mad dash.” He says, “We did it with a cellphone in a doll, using Xcode and iOS.” Now they are in the midst of building the first iteration of the actual product. They are working on moving the logic to the cloud. However, they could build smart logic into the toy, so that it can function offline as well.

They are aiming at having the product developed by CES 2015 (January 2015) and having it on shelves fall of 2015. This will require collaborators besides IBM, which has assisted them with access to Blue Mix, IBM’s platform for building cloud applications (see our article : “IBM – Watson: Emerging As A Mobile Cloud Player” 3/25/14) and its voice technology.

They are working on various partnerships for hardware and software, as well as industrial design of the toy, and expect to make announcements in the near future. They intend to seek distribution through major retailers of the Walmart, Target, ToysRUs ilk.

There is more to the Fang platform (which may, incidentally, be re-named at some point) than a cuddly doll. Coolidge notes that the typical progress in children’s play things as they grow older is from plush to flexible plastic items, hard plastics and eventually, he believes, to wearables.

The company is not contemplating developing coursework as such. What they are focused on is the relationship of language and voice to the learning process. Language, Coolidge describes as “the first user experience.” He also points out that learning is heavily dependent on how children react to “voices,” and states they will evolve the Fang voice to keep it consistent with children’s development phases.

Since the toy will be heavily personalized to kids, the question comes up of whether it could also have application to healthcare issues, such as monitoring of activities. However, Coolidge states, “This is not where we are going.”

If the devices can create healthcare benefits, he states, they would likely explore this with IBM and Watson. Note, however, that while Fang is tied to Watson and Benini describes Watson as being particularly strong in “question/answer pairing,” in the future as other cognitive computing, or “deep learning” platforms develop, Fang could also utilize them. (See our article: “Deep Learning” – Driving Mobile Cloud Development” 1/30/14.)

Finally, there is that issue, common to all new mobile cloud breakthrough companies, of their revenue model. Coolidge describes three aspects that they intend to develop. First, is the retail sales of the dolls. Here the pricing will be largely dictated by the company’s COGs (cost of goods) and they are aiming for a price point that can be afforded by an average family.

Second is potential revenue from usage, which will result as apps are written for the toy. Third is a feature of the platform which Majestyk calls the Parents Panel. This gives parents (and could also include educators) a window, portal or dashboard, into observing the child’s activities with the device. They plan to offer this on a freemium model, with possible revenue coming from recommendations offered to parents.

In its digital agency work, Majestyk Apps is focused on web and mobile and offers early stage companies help with design and development of products and marketing. They view themselves as an “idea incubator” for startups. They have clearly incubated a rather fascinating concept for themselves with Fang.

* Photo by John Morgan [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr