Turning the iPhone Into Child’s Play with Ubooly

The iPhone and iPad topped a lot of children’s holiday wish lists in 2011, so it’s not surprising that companies would be looking to make money at the intersection of the lucrative kids toys market and Apple’s hot-selling mobile devices. One new venture in that space looks to combine both of the above with a third money-making powerhouse: in-app purchases. Meet the Ubooly, which launches today on Kickstarter.

Ubooly is a new project from Boulder-based Warb, a design firm consisting of husband and wife team Isaac Squires and Carly Gloge. The Ubooly project is a bit of a departure for the duo, who generally do mostly web-based design work, and count several startups among their clients. Ubooly is a not a web venture, however – it’s a cuddly, plush toy with an iOS software component that works in tandem with your iPhone or iPod touch, and promises a constant stream of content updates. It also uses a subscription-based model for content updates, like a lot of the kid-friendly websites we covered recently, but also adds the option of a la carte, single serve content packs, too.

In an interview, Squires described why they felt the time was right for this kind of product initiative. “I think we converged on these concepts at the same time because finally smartphones are in the hands of kids,” he said. “iOS devices were the number 1 toy for kids for the past two years, and over 40% of kids have access to a smartphone. Often when mom or dad upgrade their iPhone, the old one becomes a gaming device for their children. The iPod touch is affordable as a birthday gift.”

Asked what advantages Apple’s mobile devices provide to Ubooly specifically, Squires said that it’s all about getting the most out of your investment. “As a toy maker, we now have access to hundreds of dollars worth of hardware that we’d previously had to have embedded into the cost of our product,” he pointed out. “Wi-Fi, touchscreen, GPS, accelerometer, tons of hard drive space, audio, microphone, to name a few, not to mention access to a really great commerce platform (the App Store).”

Squires and Gloge chose to go with Kickstarter over traditional investment sources, including angels, out of a desire to keep things simple. “We are currently bootstrapped, and so close to getting over the manufacturing hump,” he said. “If we had the chance to take angel investment, we’d consider it, but at the same time we’re a really lean operation and there’s that romantic notion of being that ‘little company that could.’ Our design business has trained us to be efficient and prolific.”

Ubooly isn’t the first product out there to try to capitalize on a combination of the cute factor and iOS-friendly features. Crayola’s ColorStudio HD from Griffin lets kids draw and color on iPads, and the Woogie 2, also from Griffin, acts as a kid-proof case that combines with the Woogie app to provide some basic interactive features. Squires says Ubooly goes beyond the competition, however.

“Ubooly uses sophisticated voice recognition software to engage with kids (games, stories, adventures, jokes). This makes Ubooly a very active toy – you can tote it around with you everywhere, and for kids it is like a pet,” he noted. “They know Ubooly by name [...] Ubooly is more than just a case plus app, it builds an emotional attachment and keeps on learning (we are updating the app routinely over Wi-Fi with new content and behaviors).”

The updating feature of Ubooly is possibly what makes it most likely to succeed. Squires says the team plans to produce roughly 10 hours of new content per month, which will be delivered either via a $5 monthly subscription, or in activity packs available to purchase at $2 per download, each of which would contain roughly three hours of new content. $1 accessory purchases will let kids change the face and appearance of Ubooly, too, but Squires seems most excited about their plan for peripheral apps. “We have a ‘puppet’ app, which lets mom or dad control what Ubooly says from a second iOS device,” he said. “We are also creating an app for the web and iPad which we call the Ubooly Laboratory – kids can play doctor, make treats for Ubooly, and follow stories with illustrations as Ubooly reads out loud.”

Squires and Gloge are looking to raise $25,000 to help them “get over the manufacturing hump” on Kickstarter, and plan to start sending out the first units as rewards for backers around July of  this year. Ubooly definitely has the looks to win over kids and parents, and a revenue plan in place that could help it become the next big franchise in digital kids’ toys. It’ll be interesting to see if users respond well to this unique combination of technology, fun and freemium/subscription content delivery model.

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