Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect “Playful Learning” – the future of interactive TV?

New National Geographic and Sesame Street products hint at what's to come for TV/video game crossover


Think video games rot the brain? Well, think again, as Microsoft are harnessing their interactive Xbox Kinect device to make learning fun. They’ve teamed up with documentary-makers National Geographic and Sesame Workshop, the producers of kids’ TV favourite Sesame Street, to develop a raft of new interactive educational TV programmes that might just hint at the future of television.


They’re calling the project “Playful Learning”, the idea being that children will be able to interact with these TV programmes by playing games, solving puzzles, making decisions and even, via the magic of the Kinect’s camera, appearing on screen themselves. It’s all about capturing imaginations and getting children and their parents off the couch, changing them from passive viewers into active participants.

Because the Kinect doesn’t require any other input than a player’s movements or speech – it’s based on body and voice recognition – the experience is intuitive and easily grasped by the pre-schoolers and young children who make up the new venture’s target audience.

Oh, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that these new Sesame Street and Nat Geo programmes are just one-off bits of “edutainment” software. Entire seasons of the interactive Sesame Street are being shot, and the Nat Geo programmes have commissioned acres of brand-new footage specifically for Kinect, with the shows being delivered in a similar manner to television, via Xbox LIVE.

Indeed, Microsoft have recently teamed up with nearly 40 of the world’s leading TV and entertainment providers, including HBO, SyFy and the BBC, in order to launch a new TV service via Kinect and Xbox LIVE, which aims to make TV “more personal, social and effortless”. Building on this foray into television, the company hopes to encourage these entertainment makers to seize on the Kinect technology and produce more bespoke interactive programming along the lines of the Playful Learning project.

And Microsoft are taking this new approach to interactive TV production seriously, having developed the new educational software and TV shows in conjunction with a raft of educational establishments, harnessing research about perception and child learning to inform the tone of the new programmes and arrive at interactive elements that are both fun and conducive to effective lesson learning.

Sesame Street’s format demonstrates this research-driven approach adroitly: each episode of the show is based around a word and number “of the day”, which recur throughout the programme to ensure that children both understand and remember these key concepts. The new Kinect Sesame Street builds on the TV show’s traditional foundation by including a “move of the day”, which children will need to remember and perform in order to interact with the programme successfully. 

The example I saw on display featured “throw”, and encouraged children to hurl imaginary coconuts at the TV as part of a counting exercise. And, because of the interactive programme’s realistic game-like physics, kids are able to see how throwing “the coconut” in different directions or with different levels of force elicits differing reactions from the characters on screen.

While Sesame Street enables youngsters to interact with the show for its entire duration, by playing with the background and adjusting the camera, the Nat Geo episodes, developed by Brighton-based Relentless Software, employ a more traditional narrative that is blended with some innovative mini-games that lead seamlessly back into the documentary content.

The Kinect Playful Learning games are impressive in and of themselves, but the implications of this new technology are staggering. For instance, one example of a fusion between Microsoft and the film industry is Star Wars Kinect, due out next year, which turns players into real-life Jedis, allowing them to take part in light sabre duels by leaping around their living rooms.

Could interactivity like that of the Playful Learning project be the future of TV? It’s possible. As David Amor of Relentless says: “First there was black and white TV, then there was colour, then HD – and we believe there’s another step after that.”

So while it remains to be seen whether you’ll be interacting with your favourite grown-up TV shows anytime soon, the fact that Microsoft are passionate and committed to the Kinect technology and have already hinted that they’re keen to develop more interactive series with their new entertainment partners, suggests a whole new world of possibilities. The future’s bright, and might well be interactive…