Six-year-old Lena Meline swooned over the cute, yet slightly ugly creatures that danced across the screen of her iPad.
She reached around the device, with her hand between its camera and a book, then watched her hand appear on the screen. Then she squealed with delight as one of the creatures came alive and landed in her small palm.
“He’s in my hand!” she yelled with joy.
Lena was having the kind of experience Petaluma author Ralph Scott describes as interactive augmented reality, a technology he hopes will help him teach children about outer space using “Miss Thorb,” the star of his book, “Our Teacher is a Creature.”
His story follows a substitute teacher from Mars who is on assignment at Enderfink Elementary in Topeka, Kansas. Miss Thorb — a blue woman with 12 eyes, two noses and antennas that appear when she has bad cellphone reception — takes her classroom into outer space after NASA’s test monkeys call in sick.
Scott, 53, has lived with the idea of Miss Thorb since 2005 and spent years perfecting her character before finding Marcela Vargas, a Brazilian artist from Canada who helped bring the character to life.
Then in 2013, he met software designer Jeffrey Ventrella at Work Petaluma, the communal office space for writers, small business owners and artists where both were renting space. Ventrella’s company, Wiggle Planet, has developed the technology to produce self-animated characters called “wiglets.”
The men hit it off and decided to combine Scott’s storyline and Vargas’ art with Ventrella’s technology.
“I think that’s really where it started to blossom,” Scott said. They began to envision a platform that would keep children engaged with books by allowing them to scan passages with their phones and bring them to life.
“We’re now in a position to take the app, place it onto one of the educational verses in the book and suddenly you’ll see a movie pop up out of that verse,” Scott said. A spaceship will blast off for a trip through the galaxy, for example.
All that’s missing is the final $6,000 to $8,000 necessary to bring the book to life. If all goes as planned, they will print the first 1,000 copies in April 2017, he said.
Their project uses technology similar to that is used in Pokemon Go, also an app that allows users to play with imaginary creatures. But unlike Pokemon’s stationary characters, Wiglets can interact with their users.
When the child scans a passage of his book, Scott said, “one of the Wahloes (characters in the book) pops up, along with its planet.
Adds Ventrella, 56, “You can pick up the characters with your fingers so that you can move them around, and then they act out this little story.”
To cement the experience’s educational value and prevent it from becoming just another toy, users will have to stay on the page, keeping their focus on the book.
“We’re trying to bridge the gray area between literature and video games, but this is not a video game,” Scott said. “‘Our Teacher is a Creature’ encourages children to point their iPhones or Android-based devices at the four-line verses throughout the story to learn more about concepts.“This is first and foremost a children’s story. The child will not have to walk too far from the book, and that’s the idea. This is not Pokemon Go, where you go out and find the characters.”
Wiglet technology was at first limited to iPad and iPhone use, but about a year ago Scott and Ventrella met Jeff Maddux, 56, an Android expert who was able to expand the app to Android phones.
“I liked the idea of merging the print with (mobile) devices so kids could engage with both,” Maddux said.
Bells and whistles aside, Scott is still focused on his original idea — getting kids excited about outer space. “Our goal is to have at least 10 planets in the book, and no matter what planet you aim at, you’re going to see aliens come off of that planet,” he said. Ventrella also likes the idea that the Wiglets and other characters in the book may help children understand biodiversity.
“These characters we’ve come up with, they’re all very strange. Some of them are kind of ugly,” he said. “There’s a lot of biodiversity in these creatures, and it reminds me of social diversity. It’s a big theme these days, and aliens are even another level out there beyond Earth.”
Neither Maddux nor Ventrella have children, although Ventrella said “my children are these creatures.” But Scott’s 5-year-old daughter Lulu has become an integral part of this project.
“She loves it,” he said. “Whenever she’s around downtown Petaluma, the first thing she wants to do is run in here and play with whatever has come out of our 3D printer. Her whole focus has become, ‘When can I see the creatures?’”
Although “The Teacher is a Creature” app is designed to work only while children have their books open, the technology exists to expand Ventrella’s software from planets in the book to real ones up above. In future books about Miss Thorb’s travels, Scott said, users may be able to interact with characters on the page, for example, and then carry them into the sky by pointing the smartphone toward a real heavenly body.
“Jeffrey’s technology not only uses genetics, it uses a database, and it also uses GPS,” Scott said. “He can geo-position creatures anywhere on Earth. Provided you know the coordinates, they’ll show up there.
“I won’t be surprised if that happens in Miss Thorb 2.0.”
You can try your hand at playing with wiglet technology by downloading apps for Android (searching for Our Teacher is a Creature) and iPhone (searching for Peck Peck’s Journey).
For more information about the project and the crowdfunding page, visit ourteacherisacreature.com.