Savvy Bears: Secure Online Gaming for Children

Savvy Bear is a virtual world for children between the ages of five and twelve years old to play, interact, and learn, in a safe environment. The Dunboyne, Co. Meath-based company was founded in 2010 by father of three John Joyce, who saw a gap in the market for a virtual world that was both educational, and crucially, safe for children to play in.

“I was watching what they were doing on the likes of Disney’s Club Penguin and Moshi Monsters and I said, “I think I could actually develop a product like this.”

John, who is a graduate of computer science from Trinity College, Dublin had seventeen years’ experience in the technology sector before looking at the virtual world space and deciding, “right, I’ll give it a go.”

“I set the company up last July/August and that’s kind of how it started, just from a concept in my head to saying, “OK let’s give this thing a go”, and that’s what happened.”

John is aware that Savvy Bear are not alone in this space, but feels that his product’s educational value, and its safety, set it apart from the rest.

“The unique selling point is that we have an educational part to our product, so there is a school in the game if the child wants to go into the virtual world school, and learn Irish, English, maths, geography, history and science.”

The Irish, maths, and English educational modules on Savvy Bear are all free, as well as optional; if a child wants to simply play or interact, they may do so. The virtual world’s chat function contains only pre-selected words and phrases that a child may choose from, such as “hello”, “thank you”, or “you are funny!”, which ensure that the chat remains innocent and cannot be hijacked by Internet prowlers.

“Our product is 100% safe, continues John. The other games like Moshi Monsters, Club Penguin and Panfu, they have an open chat policy where you can potentially chat to the child. We don’t, we just have pre-selected words in the game, so we’re 100% safe, which is crucial for a parent. We’ve a little bit of education in it, but it’s great fun, and it’s ad-free.”

The educational aspect of the game is pitched very much as an option and part of the fun, rather than the sole focus of the game, so from the child’s perspective he or she is playing at school rather than attending it or doing homework. Also, any phrases which are chosen in English are translated on the dashboard in Irish as an added educational aid.

John readily acknowledges that it is remarkable to think that he has created a virtual world for children from as young as five years old.

“I’m 39 years of age, this stuff didn’t exist when I was growing up. If you look at a twelve year old child or a ten year old child with a phone and they’re twittering and they’re maybe doing something on Facebook. You can’t turn it off, it’s just there, it’s 24/7.”

With digital devices and worlds so commonplace, it is hardly surprising that the uptake of Savvy Bear amongst children has been high so far. The game has taken on a certain momentum; an appearance on the Irish Dragon’s Den secured some valuable publicity; but Savvy Bear’s growth until now has been achieved without any marketing budget.

“We’ve been going since January and we’ve just over 30,000 people on it (15,000 of which are regular, active users), and it’s been played in 102 countries. It’s just taken off, which is fantastic, you know?”

In anticipation of this growth, Savvy Bear have updated their software to cope with increased demand; behind the cuddly teddy bears, there is a back-end which has to cope with potentially thousands of visitors at any one time.

“What the user sees at the front-end is probably the easiest part, the art and animation. The hardest process in that was listening to a child describe it, or they might sketch out a hair salon and say, “this is what we’d like in a hair salon.”

“At the moment we’re using five or six pieces of software, so we have Flash, php, Gimp, Ubuntu, and we’ve a piece of software that we’ve invested in recently called Smartbox, which Facebook use and allows us to handle thousands of people per second, which is a big issue for any virtual world.”

John laments the fact that he had to locate Savvy Bear’s servers outside Ireland due to what he sees as a “sad” lack of broadband infrastructure.

“The reason we have the servers over in London is because the broadband is a lot better and you get 100% up time, whereas unfortunately, in Ireland you can only guarantee 99% up time, and with a virtual world the last thing you want is to be down.

“When you’re using things like Google Analytics and you’re looking at my market which is the whole world, and you look at the size of Ireland, it’s a little dot. And you think, “why can’t people access the game in Roscommon?” It’s because there’s no broadband there.”

John hopes that the initial growth he has seen will continue and is confident the market is there for Savvy Bear to achieve this.

“I’ve had lots of people say that there’s loads of people in the gaming space, and I say, “that’s correct”. Gaming is massive, but there’s no-one in Ireland or England at the moment developing a virtual world forchildren between five and twelve. We’re it.”

Yahoo Joins ITLG Panel for Social Media Day

Dr Elizabeth Churchill is a Principal Research Scientist and manager of the Internet Experiences group at Yahoo! Research.

What makes this Social Media Day event special?

Historic event: The City of San Jose will officially proclaim June 30th as Social Media Day at the Irish Innovation Center.

Global participation via Tweets, video streams, Flickr photo sharing and more.

Videos and posts via YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn will connect you with the ITLG network and the audience worldwide.

Program highlights: Opening Remarks by Tom McEnery, former City Mayor, author, businessman and John Stanton, ITLG Executive Director & President of The Irish Innovation Center.

Proclamation by City of San Jose Councilman Sam Liccardo.

Panel Moderator: Richard Moran, venture capitalist, author and evangelist for organization effectiveness.

Diverse panel of entrepreneurs and social media experts:

  • Fergus Hurley, founder of Focal Labs and Clixtr, featured in TechCrunch, VentureBeat, and winner of the 2010 CES Mobile App Showdown
  • Charles J. Orlando, author, relationship expert and Facebook personality nearing 500,000 fans
  • Philo Northrup, Co-founder of enVie Interactive and publisher of VIE, a new brand of social game that’s a casual MMO
  • Kevin Spier of Bunchball, leader of “Gamification” technology used by companies such as ABC, NBC, Playboy, HP, Comcast, Warner Brothers, Nestle and other top brands driving consumer activity

We would love to have you join us and help us spread the word:

Twitter hashtag: #SJSMday

Open Data Challenge on July 4th and 5th

Ireland’s first ever 18-hour Open Data Challenge is being held at the National Digital Research Centre in Dublin this July 4th and 5th. During this free event, which is open to the public, participants will work in groups to try and develop creative and useful business ideas based around open data. The Open Data Challenge is being organised by the NDRC’s Inventorium programme in partnership with Dublin City Council, Finglas Council, the Irish Internet Association, and Microsoft.

Inventorium is one of the NDRC’s three programmes, the other two being the LaunchPad and Catalyser programmes, and it is a three year, European-funded, project that is taking place across Ireland and Wales. Inventorium’s primary focus is “on idea generation, and pre-incubation digital innovation”, according to Dr. Teresa Dillon, who is the programme’s senior content development manager.

The organisers at Inventorium see great potential in Open Data as a basis for creative new business opportunities.

“I think open data is hugely important at the moment. I guess it got a lot of momentum from the Obama election in 2009, but the EU, for example, has had policies in place since 2003 looking at how the governments can make the data they collect on our behalf available to us in an easy to digest format.

“If you’re moving into an area, and you’re wondering, for example, where your nearest bank or your nearest refuse collection is, or is there a safe beach? What are the primary schools like? What’s the level of crime? All these types things are the type of data that the government collects on our behalf.

“I think what we find interesting as well is that this data can also be used to develop new products and services and businesses, because how you actually engage with that data and how you actually might use it is another layer upon just providing it. So the governments and councils are now providing it, but it’s actually how do you use the data after that.”

A number of initiatives at local government level have meant that there is now ample opportunity for would-be entrepreneurs to put this data to good use.

“From the NDRC perspective and the Inventorium perspective it’s about stimulating economic activity”, says Teresa.

“We’re always entitled to see it, and we’re always entitled to ask for it, but it’s actually now being provided. So, Fingal council, for example, have seventy such datasets available now. And Dublin City Council, via their initiative, Dublinked, are also now encouraging all of the four local authorities to make the data that they collect public as well.”

“How can you use this data to develop new businesses and new creative businesses in this space? It’s not just about apps or online web services, it’s also about data visualisation.

“Imagine you’re walking down the street and you actually know how much water is being consumed by every house on your street. And maybe five years down the road your street needs to know how much water it’s using and needs to regulate it. Data visualisation techniques can actually start to expose some of that based on open data sets, and then you start to get into a whole different level of thinking about community and common good and sharing resources and really an awareness of what we’re actually using within our society.”

Irish Technology Leadership Group Wins PR Award

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L-R: Eilish Joyce, Cian Hughes, Brendan Murphy

The Irish Technology Leadership Group has been recognised by the Public Relations Consultants Association of Ireland in their Awards for Excellence in Public Relations 2011 for generating positive international publicity for Ireland during the depths of the negative media coverage surrounding the EU/IMF bailout last November.

The Silicon Valley based grouping of Irish and Irish American technology leaders, which aims to connect young Irish technology companies with influential Silicon Valley figures, and to advance the cause of the Irish technology industry, won the award for their campaign in November 2010 which resulted in a positive Irish story gaining national and international coverage even as details of Ireland’s bank bailout emerged.

The award, shared with PR firm Financial Dynamics (FD), was in the category of Best Corporate Communication Campaign to Protect, Promote & Enhance the Reputation or Profile of a Corporate Entity, for the ITLG’s publicity campaign surrounding their “Silicon Valley Comes to Ireland” event.

Cian Hughes Head of Operations of the Irish Technology Leadership Group, says that the organisation was, “very pleased to have won the award”.

“We’re absolutely delighted because we were up against tough opposition from Bord Gais, Cisco, Ecclesiastical Insurance, and Keane PR.”

“We had a very strong group of people who came over from the states. Some very well-known names, and some great technology leaders, so that captured the imagination”, explained Mr. Hughes.

Mr Hughes was quick to acknowledge the role of Financial Dynamics in organising the media campaign, and highlighted the work of Brendan Murphy and Eilish Joyce in particular.

“For us, obviously, it creates awareness, but also I think it to some extent rewards some of the hard work that was put in by FD”

As part of the event, a number of notable Silicon Valley figures, including former Intel chairman Mr. Craig Barrett, travelled to Ireland and participated at event in venues such as NUI Galway, Trinity College Dublin, and the University of Limerick.

Despite the negativity in the international press regarding Ireland, and in the Irish press itself widespread media coverage was garnered for the visit of the Silicon Valley delegates, including RTÉ television and radio, TV3, and most notably, an eight minute interview with Mr. Barrett on Bloomberg’s “In Business” programme, a slot which has been valued as worth between €300-400,000.

Speaking of the Bloomberg piece, the station’s first ever broadcast from Limerick, Mr. Hughes said, “that was probably the highlight”, although the sustained media campaign also received coverage in The Irish Times, The Irish Independent, Newstalk radio, and Reuters.

The ITLG now plans to double the size of the event next year, largely due to the profile built up by last year’s campaign.

Shazam takes on TV

Shazam’s receipt of $32 million in funding to increase its forays into the world of television is likely to see the London-based company finally bridge the gap between television and mobile.

The music recognition app will link the small screen of the past with the small screen of the future by making the televisual experience a more interactive one, in a manner which is likely to appeal to consumers and marketers alike.

TV production companies and advertising executives have long laboured to find a way to tap into the mine of potential revenue that the Internet represents, but with limited success thus far. While most adverts and many television shows have been emblazoned with their web addresses as well as pleas to follow them on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, the interaction was always likely to be minimal; not everyone watches television with their notebook on their lap, and few are likely to note a web address or Twitter handle for later investigation.

TV networks and advertisers have sought to provide this sort of interaction previously, with apps being developed for individual shows such as Britain’s Got Talent, but this requires a level of effort and separation from the television which is too great for the world of advertising.

Where Shazam looks set to succeed in this regard is in the fact that it currently has 150 million users worldwide. No television show or corporate advertiser could ever hope to have that wide an uptake of a dedicated application.

By taking its hugely popular sound-wave recognition technology and simply applying it to certain televised content, Shazam has turned an already successful business model into one that has garnered serious interest from investors, and corporate customers.

Shazam has built up its own database of songs for their music recognition service, but the TV service, first showcased during the 2010 Super Bowl interval, differs in that it only works for adverts or shows that have paid Shazam a fee for which it will link the user to whatever content the advertiser wishes, be it an an extended version of an advert, competitions or an online store.

As with Twitter and Google before it, Shazam is looking likely to have the addition of a new verb to the English language to its credit, as adverts and television programmes now exhort their viewers to “shazam” their screens to gain access to the extra content available via their mobile devices. A new entry into the vernacular of our time may not have any tangible monetary value, but is a sure sign that your product has entered the public consciousness, and there is money in ubiquity.

A number of high-profile customers have already used Shazam in their campaigns, ranging from TV shows on the Syfy network, to music artists like Faithless. The trick for Shazam is that its clients will do the marketing for it; as more adverts and TV shows urge their viewers to “shazam” the content, the brand will become more recognisable.

Shazam’s marketing representatives have stated that music recognition remains its bread and butter, and that they expect TV to account for half of the company’s revenue within two years, but the reality is that it has more than likely left the crowded digital music space behind it in favour of a far more lucrative model.

NUI Galway Acknowledges the Importance of Innovation in Engineering

The National University of Ireland, Galway (NUIG) launched its Engineering Innovation (Electronic) today. The location was the brand new Engineering Building which stands alongside the River Corrib. A new course, a new building, and some new thinking as well.

In his opening remarks, Professor Gerry Lyons, Dean of Engineering at NUIG, made it very clear why the word ‘innovation’ was in the title of the course, “The graduates of the future of this University will be graduates that will create the economy of the future… We can create the future of Ireland if we put our minds to it.”

The opportunity this course has been created to respond to is the need for engineering graduates to be more innovative.

China and India have been producing engineers by the hundreds of thousands yet still the home for breakthrough technology is Silicon Valley. But as Professor Lyons points out, Ireland is not that far behind, “The little piece that is missing is entrepreneurship.”

It is expected that this new thinking followed by this new approach to educating engineering graduates at NUIG may provide the missing link. “Innovation is going to come from a new type of engineer… We at NUIG are well-positioned to create the engineer of the future. An engineer who is confident and creative enough to expand out beyond narrow confines… and actually think about the possibility of doing things in new ways, creating new products and new services.

“I have no doubt that through the innovation of engineers that we will see very significant growth and expansion in this country in the near future.”

These thoughts were echoed by Mike Conroy who came to officially launch the new course. Mike as well as being General Manager of Cisco’s Global Product Research and Development in Galway is also an alumnus of the University.

He said, “There was nothing to stop the prosperous expansion of the ICT sector in Ireland.

“An innovation culture is an imperative for building new start-ups and attracting… inward investment into Ireland. Innovation is driven by the intersection of talented engineers and visibility to key business problems and opportunities. Cross-disciplinary education in technology and innovation, like in this NUI Galway programme, is a great example of this as innovation needs to be at the heart of everything we do at all levels of education.”

The four-year course will produce graduate engineers with business and innovation skills alongside traditional engineering capabilities.

Graduates from this course will not only be qualified for regular engineering posts but will have the option to be able to make use of their integrated business skills to either start their own enterprise or be better prepared to take on more strategic roles in already established businesses.

NUI Galway’s John Breslin is the course director (and also the publisher of Technology Voice), and he says, “Industry feedback has told us that a multi-disciplinary approach to engineering education can provide a massive boost to job prospects.

“The Higher Education Authority also says that there is a need for greater emphasis on critical thinking, capacity for analysis and entrepreneurial perspectives in Irish engineering courses.

“The figures regarding employment in the technology sector are very encouraging for current
and future students. 5000 jobs have been created in this sector since 2010, according to the
director general of Engineers Ireland, and the director of ICT Ireland recently stated that there are about 3500 open jobs within the information and communications technology sector at present.

“The School of Business is right next to the Engineering Building and it is a great opportunity for creating this close-knit collaboration between engineering and the business skills that are needed for this course.”