Interview: MDM Alumni Releases Touch-Free Mobile Education App

Interview: MDM Alumni Releases Touch-Free Mobile Education App

After 3 years of research and development, MDM graduate Erez T Yanuy Barzilay and his team launched their mobile education app last month. Aimed at children facing extreme learning, developmental or physical challenges, such as severe autism, A BuZoo Story for Android helps to enhance the communication of these early learners. Many of these children are non-verbal and have limited or impaired motor skills.

A BuZoo Story is a touch-free app that tells the story of 14 animals on a bus on their way to their day job at the zoo. Users interact with the story by placing animals on the bus using simple hand gestures. Throughout the story, words are put up on the screen which helps users learn to read and spell. Users collect all 14 animals and interacting with each animal touchlessly, learning interesting facts about each one. 

4 years ago, inspired by the iPhone and the mobile revolution, Erez left his career as an award-winning documentary filmmaker and entered the Master of Digital Media program. In addition to his demanding coursework, Erez leveraged every opportunity he could to meet new people in the digital media community. He has been an active member of the community ever since.

We sat down to chat with Erez about A BuZoo Story, his company Shailah Interactive and the role that networking and the Vancouver community has played in his company's development.

The following is a recent interview with Erez Barzilay at The UBC ISIS Coast Capital Savings Social Innovation Hub.

Congratulations! You just launched your first touch-free education app, A BuZoo Story for Android. What was the experience like? 

It's very exciting. 

We're quite confident that this might be a world first in the mobile education space. The app is totally touch-free, we're using some tricky gestures and it's very accurate; it's image-based, not infrared; and, to the best of our knowledge, it's the first Unity 3D-based device. This is a big deal because Unity is one of the most popular game engines out there. 

The amount of support that we've gotten from day one is incredible. The support is not only from the community and MDM and it's partner universities, but big companies are also supporting us in different ways: Samsung, Unity, Leap Motion, Microsoft, the list goes on and on. 

Finally launching our debut app is very, very exciting and very, very frightening at the same time. 

Can you tell us about the app—who's the audience, how does it work, what makes it special? 

The app looks very simple; it's only 14 animals being collected and going on the bus. But developing it was actually very challenging—everything from the user interface, the navigation, what gestures work best, how far we can push those gestures and how accurate they have to be—all of this took a lot of testing and prototyping. Everything we've done has been done without any official funding, yet with lots of enthusiasm from everyone involved. 

The questions we asked ourselves from day one were, "Who can use this touch-free technology the most?" and "Who can use this in a way that it will positively affect their life?" Our answer was developmentally or physically challenged nonverbal kids.

Right now, autism is a very visible issue as the numbers are growing every year. But when we initially marked this specific target group as our main goal 3 years ago the first tablets were just emerging. Based on the research we’ve done and our discussions with experts, we now know that although tablets work extremely well for many of the kids on the autism spectrum—tablets had almost no affect on kids who usually face a very difficult time holding, touching or fine-pointing. 

So, touchless-interface combined with mobility may make a huge difference. We are not sure, as this have never been done or tested before. However, some very prominent experts are extremely excited by what we are doing and trying to achieve.

A BuZoo Story is the first app released by your company, Shailah Interactive. Can you say a little about how the company is connected to the MDM program? 

So we are 5 people in the core and 4 of them—Luke Johnson, Fouad Hafiz, Josh Kho and myself—are MDM alumni. Other students and alumni have been joining us throughout. We have someone from almost every cohort involved in the project and contributing to specific tasks. We see the MDM program as a tremendous source of innovation and experience. MDM students and alumni have the spirit and expertise that we're looking for. 

The MDM program lowers your fear and hesitation of being challenge by technology. I never would have imagined doing this without MDM. 

What was your impression of the opportunities and industry connections available to you as an MDM student in Vancouver? 

I would not where I am without networking. I networked myself almost to death, taking every opportunity that was offered to me, during the MDM program and after. Some of my best supporters in the industry today are people that Dennis Chenard introduced us to almost 4 years ago when I started the program. He took us for a tour of nearby studios and the people that we met on that tour became some of my best mentors and friends. 

I can pick up the phone today on almost any issue and have someone to call—this includes professionals in digital media, all the way to the best lawyers and accountants in town. There is so much going on in Vancouver, so many places that you can go to get mentorship and great advice. 

I would love to see more MDM students networking with the community here. I think it should be mandatory. 

I also get involved in the community by helping organize events. I help organize the Vancouver iOS Developers Meetups, the monthly Vancouver Enterprise Forum, as well as Vancouver Startup Weekend. That's my way of giving back.

What's next for Shailah Interactive?

We're going to prove that you can do all this and still be profitable, sustainable and make a difference in somebody's life. 

Any last words of advice?

You have to dare, you have to network and you have to leverage the MDM experience. There are enough forces in town connected to the MDM program to guide you. It's the opportunity of a lifetime.

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A BuZoo Story for Android is available on the Google Play Store. There’s a free and a paid version ($14.99).

Meet Erez at the MDM Open House on May 29th and learn first hand about his experiences in creating A BuZoo Story.

Watch Erez talk about his experience in the MDM program: