x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Is the Apple iPad the ultimate children's toy?

Children as young as two years old seem to have an almost instinctive ability to operate this device.

In 1972, Alan Kay wrote a research paper called A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages. Kay, one of the pioneers of personal computing, was speculating about the type of computer that would be widely available and used in the future, not just by adults but by children. The "DynaBook" would be a "personal, portable information manipulator" with a rechargeable battery and the capability to display books.

In some ways, Kay's paper was similar to other predictions about technology in the future, which extrapolate from contemporary progress with unbounded optimism. Like the 1950s vision of doctors and bankers flying to and from work in jet-propelled machines by the year 2000, the DynaBook had a whiff of science fiction, which the author readily acknowledges and refutes. "Although it should read as science fiction," he writes, "current trends almost guarantee that many of the notions discussed will actually happen in the near future." 

The videos of young children using the Apple iPad, which have been posted on YouTube in recent weeks, show that Kay's vision could be on the brink of becoming reality. Children as young as two years old seem to have an almost instinctive ability to operate this device. They sit down and start using it with very little explanation or instruction. Of course, the touch screen has a lot to do with this ease of use. Young children are tactile creatures. They think by feeling and doing. The iPad removes any obstacles from interaction. It replaces abstraction with immediate response. The computer mouse - never a particularly satisfactory way to control a machine - is rendered redundant. Everything happens on screen. This interface helps to explain why the iPad is so intuitive and simple that a two-year old can use it. But touch screens have been around for years in bank ATMs and other public information machines. The revolution comes not just from the interface but the nature and the quality of the interaction.   

The iPad has a built-in accelerometer to respond to movement and sensors to respond to light. Within weeks of its launch, an e-book called Alice For the iPad hints at how these features can be exploited to create an interactive and immersive experience. Twist and turn and shake the device and this version of the children's classic Alice in Wonderland will respond in various ways. As a result of this early promise, the iPad has been dubbed the ultimate toy, the start of a revolution in learning and even the cause of a huge, generation-defining change in expectations of technology.    

While some of the more extravagant predictions may be frothy effusions from excited pundits, the way technology defines behaviour and bonds individuals into groups is undeniable. Already Astrid expects a lot from our laptop: it is the source of music and communication with other people. She waves at it and she dances around it. Now and again she bashes the keyboard, thumps the screen and pries off the keys. No doubt she would take to an iPad straight away, but the shiny, new device would need to be encased in a protective wrapper to prevent Astrid turning it into an inert slab. Unfortunately the iPad seems as fragile as it is easy to use.  

Astrid's thirst for music is bordering on insatiable. Not just any music, but a particular CD - Kindermusik's Dew Drops. If this music is not playing, she takes me by the hand and leads me over to the computer. Then she starts a curious mime: she bounces up and down and sways from side to side as if the music is on. The only sounds are the distant hum of the road and intermittent beeps from car horns. 

Her mesmeric dance is difficult to ignore. Believe me, I have tried. If I do not turn on the music she starts to yelp and tries to clamber over the barricade we have put up to protect the computer. It starts to get dangerous. So I start the music and she is happy.    The CD is not very long. And though the music is quite pleasant and not particularly annoying, it starts to loop quite quickly. Meandering jiggles and upbeat jigs blend into one another over and over again. Kindermusik's Dew Drops has become the soundtrack to our lives. I long for a change, for a new CD, for a broadening in Astrid's musical taste or even for a brief burst of silence.