The rainbow chairs, miniature hot air balloons and child care at yesterday's Reading Rainbow press event were a welcome change from the standard mood lighting and Adele songs that set the scene for most tech launches these days. Of course, this wasn't just any press event -- this was Reading Rainbow, the eagerly anticipated return of the beloved children's program cancelled by PBS back in 2009 after a 26 year run. Host LeVar Burton was clearly emotional when he hit the stage, dabbing tears before discussing the two-year journey that culminates today with the release of the Reading Rainbow iPad App.
Burton gave a quick demo of the app on stage (including a little technical hiccup, resulting in the sly TNG nod, "I'm not an engineer, I just play one on television"), and after a brief, misty-eyed rendition of the Reading Rainbow theme song by its original singer, Tina Fabrique, the walls behind us opened up to reveal a group of kids sitting on beanbag chairs around a table, putting the app through its paces. We also managed to get some hands-on time with it, without having to elbow any small children in the process (not that we weren't willing to do what it took to get the story). Check out some impressions and video after the break.
Reading Rainbow launches iPad app, we go hands-onSee all photos
Burton told us that he was genuinely surprised with the public outcry that followed the show's cancellation. Kids have grown up with it for more than a quarter-century, and as such, there are some fairly strong emotional bonds at play here. According to Burton, maintaining the elements that made the show so magical was the most difficult aspect of the 18 months the team invested in the creation of the app. And, naturally, one reporter in attendance wanted to know what happened to the book report feature that played heavily in the TV show. Burton assured him that it's coming.
The app's interface is built around a series of floating islands, each based on a different genre. At present, the islands include "My Friends and Family," "Animal Kingdom," "Genius Academy" (science and math) and "Action Adventures & Magic Tales." More subject islands will be added as the app continues to be built out. Burton told us that the team was looking to move away from the more traditional e-book shelf format, into something that made reading "more of an adventure," much like the original program.
Click an island, and a you'll get a sliding list of of books on that topic, with "Just for You" recommendations at the top. Below this are short videos on the subject that retain the "field trips" the series was known for, featuring kids out in the world and Burton himself. Each island has three or four videos at the moment, including a "Classic Reading Rainbow Video" from the original show, so you can compare and contrast haircuts from over the years.
The reading interface should prove familiar to anyone who has checked read a children's book on an iPad before. You can can choose to read with or without narration (the book is aimed at three to nine-year-olds, so there are some pre-readers in the mix). You can either flip through the pages with a swipe or touch the arrow keys at the bottom. In order to harness the multimedia capabilities, the company has added animation to the pages, which can be accessed by tapping spinning sparkly circles. All in all, they've done a good job not overpowering the book format on that front -- after all, this is a learning tool, not a movie viewer.
Books can be "checked out" five at a time. The app borrows the traditional library format (which, sadly, may be lost on some young readers), letting you return the books you're finished with in a slot. The books you carry are stored in your Backpack, an aesthetically customizable digital carrying case.
Reading Rainbow arrives today in the App Store. A free download lets kids see the books and videos, but to actually read, they'll need a subscription, which runs $10 a month. There's also an introductory offer, which gets you six months for $30. The Reading Rainbow website, meanwhile, will offer up some supplementary content and a place for parents to add feedback -- and, no doubt, revel in some of the nostalgia around the TV show that may well have helped teach them to read so many years ago
READING RAINBOW IS BACK AND IT'S AN APP!
Reading Rainbow host and producer, LeVar Burton today reimagines the iconic brand as a reading adventure App designed especially for the iPad.
Designed for children 3-9 years of age, the App delivers a library of hundreds of curated books and all new videos presented in a world of adventure and discovery. Traveling to themed islands, such as Animal Kingdom, My Friends, My Family and Genius Academy, kids find a variety of books and videos customized to their age and interests. The App brings together books from numerous acclaimed children's publishers. Each book comes alive with audio storytelling by celebrity actors, including spoken word Grammy winner Burton himself, and features light animations and related activities to enhance the story.
Similar to the original series, children journey with Burton on exciting real-life adventures. These in-app video field trips connect the stories children read to the world they live in and use a combination of newly-produced video as well as classic segments from the TV show.
"I come from a family teachers, and when I was offered the opportunity to host Reading Rainbow in 1983, I recognized immediately the value in using technology to inspire kids to read," said Burton. "Reading will never go out of style, but the tools used for learning are changing. I am excited to bring Reading Rainbow back so that parents who watched the show can now share that same feel-good experience with their own children but on a platform that resonates with today's digital kids."
The App's many features include a reward system in which children earn digital stickers to motivate a continued exploration of books and frequent reading. For parents, ReadingRainbow.com offers a companion website and dashboard to get updates regarding time their child spent reading, books read, suggestions for new stories based on the child's interests plus "Family Reading Time" hints provide opportunities to discuss themes and lessons explored in each book.
At launch, the App will include 150 books and 16 video field trips. New content will be added to the service on a regular and frequent schedule expanding the library, themes and topics children can explore.
"We're excited to offer a safe experience designed just for kids," notes Asra Rasheed, RRKidz CEO. "We've created an easy-to-use subscription service for parents, allowing them to unlock the extensive Reading Rainbow library books and videos without the worry of approving and purchasing each item separately." The Reading Rainbow App is free for download on the iPad and includes the ability to fully explore the App, the islands, videos and to select one book to read. The subscription is now available for a limited-time introductory price of $9.99 a month or $29.99 for six months at the App Store.