A lot of parents don’t like the antisocial nature of mobile games as they see kids staring at their screens while hiding from the world. That’s why Pramod Sharma, a parent himself and former Google manager, became an entrepreneur and started Tangible Play. He wanted to use the combination of an iPad app and physical objects to bring kids back into a social environment with real-world play. The result is Osmo, a platform for multiple physical-digital combination games.
After the company unveiled the product in May, it received more than seven figures in preorders — or at least a million. That’s a huge result for a brand new kind of game. I’ve tried Osmo’s three games with my own children, and it is really a magical experience. You can play games like Osmo Words, a hangman-style game where you guess the word behind an image, with two people.
The system is sophisticated yet remarkably simple. You set the iPad in a vertical stand and then attach a small mirror in front of the tablet’s camera so that the lens uses the mirror’s reflective capability to see downward. Then you can play games where the camera recognizes small objects that you put in front of the iPad. In the case of Osmo Words, one of the downloadable apps, the camera recognizes blue or red letters tossed in front of it.
On the iPad screen, you may see an image of a bear. You can toss out letters quickly to spell out B-E-A-R. But you may get it wrong as the word may have only three letters and it may really refer to the C-U-B behind the big bear. If you guess wrong, Osmo will record that as a strike. If you guess right, the correct letter appears in the letter spaces on the screen.
With Tangram, you get a bunch of colored blocks. You set them in front of the iPad, and the mirrored camera can see the shapes. You have to put the physical blocks together in a way that matches an images that you see on the screen of the iPad. The title is based on a timeless Chinese matching game.
Another is Osmo’s drawing game, Newton, where you place a piece of paper in front of the iPad. On the screen, little balls drop from the top of the screen and bounce off objects. If you draw a line on the piece of paper, it becomes an obstacle inside the game. The dropping balls will bounce off of it. It’s all done in real time.
On the physical side, anything from toothpicks to paintbrushes can be part of the experience. Osmo extends gameplay beyond the screen, changing the space in front of a tablet into an interactive environment that turns any object into a digitally connected game piece.
You don’t need a battery or a Wi-Fi connection.
What you’ll like
Setup is extremely easy
There’s no game platform that is easier to set up than Osmo. The packages are well designed, and they make it fun to take the objects out. You can play it on the floor or on a table. You can also play it at your own speed. That means that both novices and experts can enjoy it.
The experience can be magical
When it works perfectly, Osmo is a true joy. My 11-year-old laughed out loud and got every member of the family to join in. Whenever someone saw it for the first time, they marveled at how clever it was.
It rewards fast thinking
There is some strategy to Osmo Words. You can toss out a bunch of letters, but Osmo will penalize you for it. You can guess vowels, and the odds are strong that you’ll be right. Or you can simply try to figure out the puzzle and then make the correct guess all at once so that you don’t give away clues to your opponent. If you’re quick on your feet, you’ll win. But that doesn’t mean that the oldest person with a library of knowledge will win every time.
You can play it over and over — and feel good
The Words game recycles its images, but the words change. It’s a nice way to kill time, and for kids, it can be educational. You can play it guilt-free.
You can play Versus or Together
With Osmo Words, you don’t have to play against someone. You can play cooperatively by solving puzzles together, so there is no loser.
What you won’t like
The magic fades
The magic does wear off. The older the person in my family, the less excited they were about Osmo. Every person enjoyed its initial novelty, but only my 11-year-old came back to the games again and again. If the feeling of novelty wears off quickly, you may not return to the game that much. If you’re the bah-humbug sort, you aren’t going to get too excited about Osmo.
There are a few bugs
With Osmo Tangram, the iPad app is a little slow at recognizing whether you have put the physical blocks in the right pattern. If you have a strong glare, shadow, or a very cluttered background in your Osmo play area, it might affect the detection. Tangible Play says it is working on improving this. If the company can nail this issue, then Tangram will become much better game.
And with Osmo Newton, Tangible Play is also working on fixing a bug. The upper edge of the paper used for Newton is occasionally recognized as a part of the game, which the company says will not be the case in the final product. Newton is probably the app that needs more practice as it’s harder to make images that interact properly with the balls bouncing on the screen.
Osmo is a rare cross-generational game system with the opportunity for a lot of entertaining individual games. It is a simple platform that fits within our electronic lives. It can be fun for girls or boys, old or young. Tangible Play’s Sharma believes that Osmo will encourage core skills in kids, like creative thinking and social interaction.
I think the game is wonderfully creative. It could use some refinements, but the three games shown so far are cool. Osmo’s first three games may not be blockbusters, but there are more to come. I’m looking forward to seeing more variety.
Osmo will start shipping to consumers by October. It will be available on the Apple iPad 2 and up. The publisher provided early review games for the iPad version. The Osmo platform will cost $99, but presale backers get a discount price of $49. The full platform and games will cost $57, including shipping.