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Starling Parenting Game - Nudge parents to engage more with their children with wearable technology and gamification

A game that encourages parents to engage with their kids coupled with a wearable that measures language, play, time outdoors, and sleep.

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Name or Organization

Starling by VersaMe


Full time staff in CA & NC. Customers concentrated in the US with some in UK & Canada.

What is your stage of development?

  • Early Stage Innovator, with at least one-year experience in ECD


  • For-profit

What is the stage of your proposal?

  • Piloting: I have started to implement my solution as a whole with a first set of real users.

Describe how your solution could be a game-changer for your selected Opportunity Area (600 characters)

Screens (TVs or smartphones) that offer entertainment are an irresistible temptation for both parents & kids. Technology isn't going away, so our aim is to change the dynamic to incentivize greater parent-child engagement. Right now surfing Facebook is addictive while childcare is mentally taxing. Imagine if engaging a young child were as mentally tempting as playing a video game. We're aiming to use technology to give real time feedback, instant gratification, and even a physical prompt (i.e. seeing the device on a child) to change parent behavior.

Select an Innovation Target

  • Product: A new or enhanced physical product that creates value for end beneficiaries.

Tell us more about your innovation (1500 characters)

I'm a parent with three kids and have worked with thousands of parents (low & upper income), educators, and caregivers. Universally, people care about the kids in their lives, but research (and my personal observations) we struggle to translate that caring into doing the things that are best for those kids. I'll use my own kids as an example. They're growing up in a dual income household where both parents have advanced degrees, and where I spend most of my waking hours thinking about child development. I love my kids more than anything, but I regularly fail them because I prioritize what seems urgent (usually something on my phone) over what's really important to me (their longterm wellbeing). Nearly everyday I find myself compelled to do something trivial (e.g. respond to a text message) when 1000% of me would rather be spending that time with my kids. In low income homes this problem is way worse. First, they're often single parents with a threadbare support network. Second, the screens in their lives (TV or smartphones) are free baby sitters. Third, smart marketers convince them the stuff on those screens are "educational" for their kids. To change this dynamic, parents need something other than "spend more time with your kids, just because." They need an immediate psychological win. A game can do this, and if we can give them dopamine for spending time with their kids they'll feel the same urgency to do so as one gets from checking email or social media.

What problem are you aiming to solve? (3 sentences)

Overworked parents struggle to muster the mental energy to engage with their young children as much as they'd like and instead use screens as a free baby sitter. Facebook or cartoons offer immediate psychological rewards (e.g. dopamine) whereas play, reading stories, or spending time together require more effort. Most interventions take an "eat your vegetables" approach to engaging with children by insisting that the vegetables taste good and are key to long term health.

Explain your idea (5000 characters)

1. Imagine a game where parents earn points for doing things that are healthy with their children. Instead of "eat your vegetables" parenting we are proposing to make the vegetables taste good by using techniques from the video game industry. 2. Screens will play a role, but only because that's where parents are spending their time anyway. We want to hijack existing habits (i.e. we all impulsively look at our smartphones) and use the game to get them to want a reward by engaging with their child in the offline world (i.e. phone is not involved in the interaction). 3. The game will give parents points for doing real world activities with their child. Aside from an initial prompt, the phone is not part of the interaction. Example prompt: "Record a short video with your little one for 10 years in the future. Tell them how much you love them." Example prompt: "Get Your Meryl Streep on ... practice making silly emoji-like faces for your little darling (you might want to avoid 'pile of poo')" Example prompt: "Grab a ball or something round and go outside and play NOW for at least 10 minutes." 4. Any gamification system must have a closed feedback loop where a user's action is measurable. The Starling, a wearable device developed by our team that can currently measure words, reading, play sleep, time outdoors, and background noise will be used to validate the parent undertook the specified action in the real world. 5. In addition to the psychological benefit of accumulating points, we will give those points a monetary value where parents can trade them in for products and services (e.g. diapers from a leading diaper brand, toys, etc.) from product sponsors.

Who benefits? (1500 characters)

1. Parents benefit because they are psychologically rewarded. Children benefit because the game encourages their parents to spend more time with them. Longer term, third party providers and clinicians (pediatricians, speech therapists, teachers, non-profits, etc) benefit because they have a more robust way to interact with families. 2. The idea to develop the game described here came directly from user feedback from the families we've worked with thus far. We developed the underlying technology from 2014-2016. We have been working with non-profits, pediatricians, pre-schools, libraries, hospitals and speech therapists for the past year, and in the course of that work we've interacted with African-American, Hispanic, White and Native American families in their homes, doctors offices, via tele-therapy, and onsite at partner locations.

What kind of impact will your idea have? (1500 characters)

Our underlying assumption is that meaningful interaction with other human beings is what's best for kids. Since technology is not going away, we may as well harness its strengths to build stronger families. For decades, screens have resisted any public health response, but there's no reason this seemingly insurmountable obstacle cannot be overcome by changing the fundamental psychology of parent-child interaction from that of a mental tax to a reward at the most basic level. In other words, we believe making a game of some aspects of parenting is what can shift technology consumption habits so they benefit child development.

How does or how could your idea impact low-income children? (1500 characters)

Technology has had a disproportionately negative affect on low income families because screens offer cheap babysitting to parents who are often overworked and mentally exhausted when they come home. Most parents mean well, but just as it's hard to resist junk food or find the will power to workout when you're exhausted, it's similarly hard to resist social media or find the will power to read a book to your child when in that state of mind. The good news is that these families are also the lowest hanging fruit in terms of using technology to change their behavior.

Innovation: What makes your concept innovative? (5000 characters)

1. Most technology innovation with education tries to replace the humans in a child's life with a screen. We're the opposite of that. 2. There aren't exactly a ton of education focused wearable devices floating around out there. 3. As best I can tell, most people who care about early childhood innovation fall into one of three camps: 1. They think adults can be replaced by screens (ABC Mouse, Sesame Street, "educational" cartoons, etc). No research supports this, but who needs research when you have marketing? 2. They tell themselves "If only we let parents know about the research" then they'll become great parents. We used to be in this camp, but then we realized that no one knows the research better than us and even we failed at following it pretty much every day because smartphones and TV have hijacked our behavioral drives to override all of our good intentions. 3. They acknowledge that parents can care about their kids and love them more than life itself, know the research, and still give in to their ****ing smartphone to check email, text messages, or social media. In case it isn't clear, we're in the third camp, and we believe the only way to win this battle is to give parents the same dopamine hit for doing something with their kids that they get from all of the relationship destroying technology in our lives (here's looking at you Facebook).

Scale: Describe how your idea could reach a significant number of end-users. (1500 characters)

Software is infinitely scalable, so aside from the up front development cost it is essentially free to roll out to individual users. The Starling wearable device is a necessary hardware component in the game described above, and while that is also scalable, it does require a cost for each device. The good news is that the device-cost decreases as we manufacture larger quantities, and by targeting all families we are effectively using well off families to subsidize purchases for their low income counterparts. We're already well down this cost curve and now do more work with low income families than anyone else. Nonetheless, while all of this can get incredibly cheap with scale, there will always be some cost, so we will need to continue to search for alternative funding streams if we do not want to charge low income families directly.

Feasibility: Where are you with understanding the feasibility of your idea? Describe what you’ve done so far and your plans. (3000 characters)

We have developed the Starling hardware and the most basic elements of the game described above. Our goal is to flush out an MVP of the game in Q2 2018. In the past year we have piloted the Starling hardware itself in a number of settings (homes, schools, libraries, etc) for both high- and low-income families. At this point, that hard part (hardware) is done and we need to keep pushing on the software (data science, game construction, etc) to build out the complete system. What we can tell you is that simply giving parents metrics is great, but they get desensitized after a few weeks. Variable (i.e. unpredictable) rewards are what gets people hooked and creates habits. Rats in lab tests given variable rewards (in their case food) for hitting a lever begin compulsively hitting the lever. For us humans, checking email and social media are perfectly unpredictable because you never know when something new will come in, so we act just like rats in a lab by compulsively checking our phones for updates. If you're reading this, you know how insanely powerful of a motivator this is, and you may be triggered to check your phone just by reading this. Now imagine if we could direct that system of motivation toward spending time with young children. That's what we're trying to do with our game.

Tell us more about you (3000 characters)

1. I (Chris Boggiano) am one of three co-founders of VersaMe along with Nicki Boyd and my brother Jon Boggiano. The three of us were Sloan Fellows at Stanford and decided to spend our time there to research how to use technology to impact the education system at scale. We realized that education starts at birth, not kindergarten, that adult-child interaction is what is best for brain development, and that most technology is targeted at the K-12 school system or simply proposes to replace parents by having children stare at a screen. The Starling was born out of a desire to use technology to encourage more human-to-human interaction and has been continuously inspired by the work done at Stanford by Anne Fernald and her team at the Language Learning Lab in the Center for Infant Studies. 2. Early childhood is exciting because it's one of the biggest opportunities in the world today. So much brain development happens during a period of life that has historically been ignored by government, foundations, and schools, and we believe we can radically improve longterm outcomes by giving our focus to this area. 3. I'm not an early educator by background or education, so I believe I come at this with a fresh set of eyes. I graduated West Point and served overseas in the Army. Inspired by my experiences in the Middle East, I started my first company with my brother teaching sustainability and renewable energy to adults. Many of those adults struggled to read or do basic arithmetic, which made training them impossible. At Stanford, I realized that if we'd gotten to the very same people earlier in life we could have done so much more for them, and that's when the idea for the Starling was first born.

Do you have the people and partners you need to do what you’ve described? (600 characters)

Things I wish we had: 1. Large populations to work with, and 2. Partner-organizations who are innovative, adaptive, and understand that innovation requires trial & error. Personally, I would love advise from anyone with experience selling into organizations or scaling larger interventions with schools, non-profits, or any organization that reaches a large number of families.

As you consider your next steps, what kinds of help could you use? Is there a type of expertise that would be most helpful? (1800 characters)

When I come across other technologies, much of the time they have one of two value propositions: 1. "Parents, have your little one stare at this screen and we'll do your job for you." This is Baby Einstein, ABC Mouse, etc. 2. "Parents, download our app and we'll give you friendly reminders and suggestions for how to spend time with your kids." These at least attempt to encourage parent-child interaction, but alone I really doubt they move the needle much. I know eating broccoli is good for me, but I like potato chips better. An app that reminds me to eat broccoli might help, but most of the time I'll choose the chips if presented with both options. We are proposing a third way. I want parents to want to eat their broccoli because we've made it taste so good that they prefer it over the potato chips. To do this, we need help from people with experience designing video games, an understanding of how humans form habits, and the psychology/neuroscience of how the brain rewards us for undertaking certain actions.

Would you like mentoring support?

  • Yes

If so, what type of mentoring support do you think you need? (1200 characters)

We need help from people with experience designing video games, an understanding of how humans form habits, and the psychology/neuroscience of how the brain rewards us for undertaking certain actions.

Are you willing to share your email contact information submitted on OpenIDEO with Gary Community Investments?

  • Yes, share my contact information

[Optional] Biography: Upload your biography. Please include links to relevant information (portfolio, LinkedIn profile, organization website, etc).

Chris Boggiano LinkedIn Profile: Nicki Boyd LinkedIn Profile: Jon Boggiano LinkedIn Profile:

[Optional] Attachments: Please upload relevant attachments or graphics or show us how you prototyped.

We've used our own kids as guinea pigs. My daughter Caroline wore the first Starling prototype made of electrical tape and inserted into a Sharpie pen cap when she was ~2 weeks old. She eventually upgraded to a series of 3D printed prototypes and eventually to the properly manufactured Starling that we use today.

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I really like this idea. I wonder if it could reach more low income parents faster by working with physicians or home health aids. I'm thinking of organizations like ARC of Onondaga that offers speech therapists to low income families. They might be interested in buying some of the hardware in bulk and distribute to parents to encourage them to work on their child's developmental issues on their own in between visits.

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