Google gets kid & family friendly with updates

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Expeditions takes advantage of low-cost Google Cardboard VR goggles

by Larry Magid:

Google kicked off its annual I/O developers conference in San Francisco on Thursday with a long list of announcements, and two are aimed at making the company’s products more friendly for kids, parents and classrooms.

The search giant is updating its Google Play app store to provide an easier way for parents to find age-appropriate content for children, and it announced the very cool new “Expeditions” virtual reality kit for classrooms that will allow teachers to take their students on virtual field trips to museums, galleries, monuments and natural wonders around the world.

The announcements are further indications of the company’s plans to extend its services to young children. Google also offers free productivity apps to schools including educational versions of Gmail and Google Drive, which includes a web-based word processor, spreadsheet and presentation program.

Millions of parents could be delighted by Google’s products to entertain and educate children, and it’s hard to find any fault with Google app store features that provide parents with better ways to pick and control their kids’ use of apps, games and entertainment products. It’s also hard to argue against offering free world-class educational apps to schools.

However, Google is not without its critics, who worry that the company may amass vast amounts of data about children that it can use to profile and pitch them now or in the future. Google says that it doesn’t advertise or profile students in its educational apps and that it complies with the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, that governs the collection and sharing of student data.

Google also received both praise and criticism after it introduced YouTube Kids in February. The smartphone app for young children provides age-appropriate user-supplied videos, along with parental controls to turn off search and limit how long kids can watch.

I was one of several reviewers who gave the app a thumbs up the day it was released, but a coalition of consumer and child advocacy groups later charged that the app violates rules against unfair and deceptive advertising to children, including videos that blur the line between entertainment and advertising. A YouTube spokeswoman said in an emailed statement, “We work to make the videos in YouTube Kids as family-friendly as possible and take feedback very seriously,” and added “we appreciate people drawing problematic content to our attention.”

The update to Google Play announced at the I/O conference will add a dedicated family sections for apps, games, books and videos with content from the likes of Disney, Nickelodeon and Sesame Street. Parents will be able to browse content associated with well-known characters such as Elmo and Dora the Explorer, and be able to filter by age group and limit search results to apps and games in the family catalog. To make it easier for parents, content in the family areas will have a “family badge.”

Google is turning to the International Age Ratings Coalition that provides ratings and parental controls localized for each country. In the U.S. they are using the Entertainment Software Rating Board, which is best known for its age recommendations for video games. Movies will carry the familiar Motion Picture Association of America ratings.

Google will also display notices when apps contain ads or in-app purchases on product pages. Parents will have the option to use PIN-protected parental controls.

To me, the most exciting kid-oriented announcement is the Expeditions Virtual Reality Kit. It’s built around an inexpensive (starting at about $10) virtual reality headset called “Google Cardboard,” because some of them are literally made of cardboard that you fold into goggles. Google even publishes plans to make your own “cardboard.”

The product contains a slot for a smartphone which runs apps that you look at through the makeshift goggles. Because it has a lens for each eye, you immediately get a 3-D stereoscopic view, similar to a View-Master. Mattel, which owns View-Master, is making its own higher-end version of Cardboard.

The real magic happens when you move your head up or town or the side, allowing the phone’s gyroscope, accelerometer and other sensors to track your movements and present relevant views. If you’re in a palace and look up, you see the ceiling. If you look down, you see the floor, and if you start moving in the direction of a door, you walk into another room. It’s not unlike virtual reality headsets that can cost hundreds of dollars.

With its Expeditions Kit, Google can empower teachers to take their kids on trips around the world and because the hardware is so cheap, the technology can be made available to poor schools in both developed and developing countries.

I don’t know if Google can make much money on the child and student market, but I do know it can make lots of young friends who may turn into lifelong Google customers. That’s good for Google and, assuming Google keeps its promise to “do no evil,” it could be good for those kids as well.