LONDON, United Kingdom – Mirjana Spasojevic has one of the best jobs in the world; she gets paid to play with Elmo.
Sometimes there’s a little more to it than that. Spasojevic is the Director of Exploratory Research at the Nokia Research Centre in Palo Alto – and she’s led the team who have worked with Sesame Street to develop a joint educational app for the Nokia Lumia smartphones which was unveiled at Nokia World.
“We filmed Elmo against a green screen in a studio, that’s why he stands out from the rest of the animation. You don’t find that in other apps,” Spasojevic explains, demonstrating how the app works on the new Nokia Lumia 800.
When Elmo arrived on set for filming, a hush descended amongst the team. The huge pull of a furry muppet goes some way towards explaining the soft spot Sesame Street occupies for the millions who have grown up with 42 seasons of the show.
“This project did not begin life as a commercial project at all,” explains Terry Fitzpatrick, Sesame Street’s Chief Content and Distribution Officer. Nokia and Sesame Street were interested in developing research about how mobiles could help children learn to read, particularly now when families are often living apart.
“Children learn to read best when they are sitting down reading a story with their parents or grandparents. The purpose of this app is to give them that opportunity, even if their Dad is away on business, or their grandma lives in a different city,” Spasojevic explained.
The app has been developed with a series of five animated books aimed at 2-5 year olds, and will include the capacity for video conferencing in the future.
“It looks phenomenal,” Terry Fitzpatrick said. “The mobile element has been an important challenge because of the size of the screen, we couldn’t just use linear video content.”
Once the app is activated, Elmo pops up instantly to say hello and guide us through. “It’s really important to known that Elmo doesn’t read the story,” Spasojevic says, “This is about learning, not playing a game. Elmo is there to be friends with the children and help them along. If a kid is stuck on a page about raisins, Elmo will say “I like raisins…” but he won’t read out the words to them.” And anyway, “Children know that Elmo can’t read – he’s only three.” If someone gets stuck, a read-along helper appears in the top of the screen.
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Like Nokia, Sesame Street is a global brand and the television show has 30 local versions. Fitzpatrick says China’s Tiger Lily and other characters may be appearing in the app in the future. Until then – “Elmo love you”. That is all.
An earlier version of the app, for Symbian smartphones, is available for download from Nokia Beta Labs.