Wednesday, January 10, 2018

makePad v1.0 - A content-creation only device

Our nieces and nephew know that when they hang with us, they're going to have epic adventures. They also know they aren't going to get a lot of screen time. I'm sure they're tired of hearing the refrain: you can have iPad time anytime, but we have limited Uncle and Aunt time. And while there's a time and place for joyfully and mindlessly consuming content, we often strive for more active play than what the kids' devices can deliver.

This last visit there was a moment when the kids were all done with their homework and they were getting some iPad time. There three of them sat, passively attached to the screens in front of them. Had the living room been on fire, I doubt they'd have noticed. It was then that I had a spark of an idea: what if they had a device that only allowed them to create content?. A so called makePad.

By being a separate device, the kids wouldn't be tempted to get stuck in the consume only mindset. Instead of looking at tech as a brain sucking nemesis, it would be put in its rightful place as helpful tool.

Given how cheap tablets are, I quickly imagined having a whole stack of makePads ready to lend to the various kids who find themselves in our orbit. I mentally cycled through the following options in about 2 minutes:

It'll be awesome! I'll build a device from scratch using micronctrollers! Wait, that's crazy, I'll never get that project done. Oh I know, I'll buy a Fire tablet. Those are super cheap and reputable. But wait, they're built around consuming content, will I really be able to re-shape the device as I see it? I know, I'll get a cheap knock off Android tablet from eBay. If it's Android, I can do anything I want with it.

While there are many cheap Android tablets out there, I did realize that they aren't without limitations. RAM, camera quality and other stats begin to degrade when you're targeting the cheapest option.

I ended up switching gears and rather than focusing on tablets, I looked at Android phones. Here, too, I found a whole class of cheap phones that showed promise. In the end, for makePad v1.0 I settled on using a Blue 4.0 Advanced phone.

Using the BLU feels like stepping back in time. The screen is tiny and there's lag when launching a new app. But, it's also completely functional, with a 5 megapixel camera and screen resolution that matches the Kindle Fire. I've already got plans to use this phone for root experimentation and I may pick up another to use as a warm-backup ready to save day should my LG G6 go south. Heck, the phone comes with a case and screen protector. Does the phone really compare to my $800 LG? Of course not. But when you factor in the $40 price tag, you see that the BLU 4.0 Advance truly rocks.

When it comes to content creation, my guess is that the larger screen of a tablet would have been ideal. However, the smaller footprint of the phone does have its advantages. I could see our nieces and nephew toting their devices everywhere. Also, every 6~8 year old kid I know already has a tablet; but rarely do they have a phone. I'm hoping that will be a selling point.

Of course, hardware is only half the equation. To be an effective device, it has be powered by useful software.

First off, I wanted to install a custom launcher. While I can't remove YouTube and Google Chrome from the device (not to mention Google Play and the Dialer), I know that a good launcher will let you hide them. The most promising launcher I found was the oddly named Business Taxi Shell. This launcher has two modes: a simple UI to launch selected apps, and an admin side where you can use the phone normally and control what apps are visible. The problem with this and other launchers that specialize in locking down devices is cost. The Business Taxi Shell is $10, that's a quarter of what I paid for the phone, and a bit too steep for this stage of the project.

Instead of using a formally locked down launcher, I went with Apex Launcher. This launcher lets you hide apps and customize the experience so it's fairly bare bones. A clever kid will no doubt figure out how to unlock things and get to the good stuff, but if they can do that, they deserve to watch a few YouTube videos. And then I'll buy a truly locked down launcher.

As for the actual apps, I decided to focus on quality over quantity. I figure a few smartly selected apps would be better than an ad-filled, junk experience. The apps ended up getting clustered into four categories.

First, there's photography. Besides making the camera app readily available, I also installed PicSay Pro. I've used PicSay for years, and it's an easy way to add goofy stuff (think hats and mustaches) to photos, as well as more abstract photo editing. I purchased the pro version to avoid having ads get in the way. Finally, I added Google Photos to the main screen, which is helpful for sharing, a topic I'll mention below.

Next up, I tried to come up with some drawing apps. This area is a bit trickier because I don't have any goto apps for this genre. I installed Sketchbook by Autodesk which looked like a very legit sketching app. I also installed BitMoji on the phone, which allows you to quickly make a digital version of your own likeness. These apps both seem high quality, but I won't be shocked if I end up swapping them out.

Another obvious content creation outlet is audio. I made the built in voice recorder app available, and installed Walk Band. For $0.99 I was able to turn off ads in Walk Band which was totally worth it. I have only cursory experience with Walk Band, but so far I'm impressed. You can mess around with virtual instruments as well as setup tracks in a sequencer. Most importantly, it allows you to record your work.

And finally, I added support for sharing content. What good is making stuff if you can't share it with others? I setup the e-mail address that powers the phone to have myself and Shira as contacts, so any pictures or other works of art can be easily shared via GMail. I also setup makepad.blogspot.com, so kids could publish content to the web. This is obviously something that needs to be done with care, but I think learning the lesson of what gets shared publicly, privately and not at all, is a critical lesson.

So now I've got makePad v1.0 in my hand. What will my nieces and nephew have to say about this gadget? Will they see through my efforts to suck fun out of their devices? Will they have the device hacked and be watching My Little Pony in a matter of minutes? Or will they make something great? I've got no idea, but I'm sure looking forward to finding out.

Have any suggestions for content creation friendly apps? I'd love to hear them in the comments.

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