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How Zippy’s Tales uses digital storytelling to teach diversity to children

Is modern tech the answer to teaching cultural understanding and acceptance? A business born out of AUT called Titan Ideas is using augmented reality and other mediums to teach the stories of different cultures around the world to children. Its founder hopes it will help preserve cultural stories for the next generation.

Titan Ideas was founded by Abhishek (Abhi) Kala, a former digital lecturer at AUT who is now running the business full time.

Titan Ideas’ first offshoot, Zippy’s Tales, are stories based in a physical medium through books and colouring in pages. However, it builds on that physical world using the virtual world and the latest technology (AR, VR and apps) to tell the story of different cultures’ folk tales.

Kala describes it as the world’s first augmented reality storytelling platform dedicated to preserving cultural stories.

Its aim is to use technology and storytelling to teach kids values like responsibility, courage, trust and resourcefulness, as well as cultural inclusiveness through a character called Zippy.  

Zippy is voiced by Te Aria, the daughter of New Zealand clothing designer Kiri Nathan, who created the premiere costume for the star of Disney children’s film Moana.

Kala, who grew up in Garwhal, India, says he reads a lot of folktales, myths and legends from around the world and is a big fan of stories passed from generation to generation.

“When I go through tough times in life, these stories keep me going,” Kala says. “The whole reason we started this is because we’re all Zippys – we’re all traveling all the time and meeting people from different cultures, so the more we know, the better understanding we have of each other.”  

He says having this background knowledge of his culture means he’s assured in his identity, no matter where he travels to in the world, and he wants to pass that skill along to children with diverse backgrounds.

I grew up in India, right? So, if I go to a gathering and decide to eat using my hands, even if there are 50 people around looking at me funny, it doesn’t matter because I’m from a country with 1.7 billion people who eat like that, so I’m not phased now,” he says.

Stories like Zippy’s one help reduce these cultural barriers, he says.

Zippy’s Tales was created entirely in-house at AUT with a team of researchers and technologists. AUT also came on board as a shareholder to invest in the project.
 

Since then, Titan Ideas has received investment from other companies it plans to partner up with, such as Rainbow Reading, which creates programmes for children with reading difficulties.

Another app will soon be launched in collaboration with the company called Zippy’s Reading Kit, which will be focused on helping children who struggle with reading.

Kala says it’s amazing the speed at which kids can pick up and master modern technology, such as VR.
 

“It’s amazing how he [Beau, featured in the video above] put the headset on and you told him how to control it once or twice and he was flying after that. He didn’t need assistance, he understood everything. Kids these days are really prepared for this sort of stuff.”

However, it’s not all fun and games, either: Technology can also be dangerous when wielded in the hands of children, particularly when games on iPads and iPhones can become addictive at such a young age.

Kala says his team has been especially careful around how they’ve crafted created the Zippy products to ensure they’re giving the right tools to kids.

“We’re really mindful,” he says. “You can make technology fun, but you have to be careful it doesn’t become so addictive kids get stuck in that digital world. We wanted to keep the connection to the physical environment.

“Our app works with the physical form, as the first thing a kid has to do is take a colouring book and use their hands to colour, and then they use the app, which is a digital extension of the product,” he says. “You’re still using your movement, your coordination, but digital is just an extension on top of that.”

He says overall, it’s the stories that are being told that are most important over the technology, as that will change and develop in time. There are also plans to embed AI into Zippy so she can react to users differently.

"Storytelling is evolving and we are at the forefront of it. Our strength is our ability to adapt to an ever-changing technology landscape," he says. 

Next month on September 23, the whole of Auckland Library will be transformed into ‘Zippyland’. Kala says it will be a bit like Disneyland, as you kids can get tickets and go through different experiences that have been set up using technologies like AR and VR.

Kala’s big, hairy audacious goal is that New Zealand can become a storytelling capital of the world for children that’s on the same level as a Mattel, Hasbro or a Disney.

“I love what Sir Peter Jackson has done because he’s created this image for New Zealand that we tell the best stories in the world, so there’s no reason why another Disney couldn’t come out of New Zealand,” he says.

“We’re creating education and entertainment and IP for kids and we’re starting with Zippy, but we won’t stop there. That’s my dream, to be a massive property like Hasbro going all over the world.”