In our current era where tablets and smartphones are ubiquitous, it can be hard to engage children in traditional outside play to get them to move. So, when the warmth of spring comes back, it’s time for kids to get away from their screens and go outside to hit the playground. Or is it? What if a screen could actually be the best tool to get children to spend more time away from it? That’s the idea behind a suite of mobile games created by Biba Ventures. From the company’s production studio in Vancouver, the CEO Matt Toner tells us the story behind the fun.

Playgrounds for the next generation

According to Matt Toner, physical playgrounds have not evolved in decades: “Playgrounds are kind of an anomaly. They have almost resisted all digital transformation. If I showed you a photograph of a playground from a hundred years ago, and then I showed you a photograph of a playground today, you wouldn’t see a lot of difference between the two. Now, if I showed you a mobile phone from twenty years ago and compared it to your smart phone today, you’d see gigantic differences! So, even though these spaces haven’t changed, certainly kids and young families have changed a lot.”

So, how can we use digital enhancements to make play areas in parks more fun and more attractive for the whole family? It is from this question that Biba came about.

Biba's smart playground system is currently available at 4,500 sites around the world - Photo by Biba

From school project to startup

Matt Toner used to lecture at the Centre for Digital Media in Vancouver. In the course of teaching game and game theory, his team hired an intern, Ryan Nadel, to work at his previous company, Zeros 2 Heroes: “We were very busy, and we had this intern working with us on a number of different projects. Every Friday, people were discussing their plans for the weekend. And Ryan would always say that he was going to work on his playground set, but he never would explain what it was.” 

What Ryan did not expect was that Matt could help. “At Zeros 2 Heroes, we were sort of an idea incubator when it came to technical approaches. At one point, in 2014, I asked Ryan about his project. He said: “It’s something we were doing in class and we thought we could make smart phones work on playgrounds. But I don’t think it’s going to go any place; we are out of time and money.” He pitched me the basic kernel of the idea and I said: “You went from being an intern to a cofounder in the course of this conversation!” Indeed, the intern had a great idea and we had a way to bring it to life.”

Sure enough, Matt’s team did the deal, raised the money, found a partnership with the world’s largest playground manufacturer and began working on the concept. Biba games was launch in 2016 and the offer is still growing.

CEO Matt Toner - Photo by Vancouver Sun

How to play

When we think about apps that will bring children to be more active, we often think about games where they play with a smartphone in their hands, walking around while staring at the screen. But this is not what Biba is about. Games offered with the app get kids to complete challenges using the equipment in their local playground — may it be swings, slides or monkey bars. Doing so, children run, jump and meet other kids. The phone always stays in the parent’s hands, who follows the game and guides their kids while they complete their “missions.” In this way, the parent also gets to interact more with their children, instead of waiting for them to be done. As Matt reminds us: “Quite honestly, if you go to a playground, half the parents there whip out the smartphone. And they are on Instagram or Facebook and they are not really playing or paying as much attention to the kids as they might have been ten years ago. We are trying to harness that tendency for good.” Moreover, the app can be used in any play area since the user can choose what challenges to complete according to the equipment available where they are. However, the playgrounds equipped with Biba markers offer more options. The parent can scan QR codes linked to the various pieces of equipment to launch an animation and a new game.

“Every game has a little play tracker feature, and you can actually track your kid’s activity that day. We use a World Health Organization methodology; they suggest that every child should have 60 minutes of physical play every day and we measure it on the basis of low, moderate and vigorous play. All the games are coded to capture those fitness patterns. We originally thought of ourselves as a fitness app for children,” explains the CEO. Even though it was already excellent, the team quickly realized that Biba had much more to offer.

In the game Dino-Dig, kids become archeologists on a dinosaur dig expedition - Photo by Biba

Data for all

Measuring kids’ activity is great for parents, but also for communities, as Matt Toner states: “What made our company move along was, not just the fitness angle, but the healthy neighborhoods. Access to data is very appealing for decision makers. Being able to give them real information about how play is evolving in their towns is what our customers have really responded to. It helps them make informed decisions and know how the investment they made in playground equipment is actually being used, how much and how often.” Moreover, it does not require cities to invest into expensive technology: “The beautiful thing about Biba is it doesn’t require a Wi-Fi connection or any kind of electricity to be brought to the playground itself. There is nothing to break, so it keeps maintenance costs low. It uses technology available inside every parent’s pocket.”

Child’s play

With several awards won and recognition from Fast Company as one of the Most Innovative Companies of 2019, the small team of 25 creators at Biba have something to be proud of. But even with remarkable acknowledgment from the industry, the big question is: do the kids like it? To this, Matt Toner invites families to experiment the game for themselves: “Whether it’s with their own kids or grandkids or nieces and nephews, people should try it, because they might be surprised at how much their kids enjoy them. Our games are free, so download a couple and see if it transforms your experience going to the playground. We really spent some time trying to get the research and development right. We’ve also done studies that show that the kids play longer, they play harder, they play more often. One of our designers came in last week and showed us the fitness track for his child, a seven-year-old boy, from the day before. He said that his kid would not stop playing one of our games, Treasure Hunter. Sure enough, he had 55 minutes out of 60 played out of just one game on the playground. We know that it works.” 

To try to broaden their appeal and get the lift of some of the bigger brands, Biba also began partnering with larger entertainment companies that are looking for a healthy second stream alternative: “We have our own characters, but we also have done a game with brands such as the Teletubbies and Hotel Transylvania. It cuts through the clutter of discoverability among all the apps and it brings people to us.” 

Biba playgrounds - Photo by PlayPowerCanada

Success… for posterity

The Biba Ventures team certainly had the right idea, with the right people, at the right time. But what is the secret behind their success? Matt seems very humble about it: “There is this myth, when you have a technical startup, that you are going to be an overnight success. Or you’re going to blow up instantly. Sometimes, it takes tenacity. Sometimes, it takes five years to appear like things are moving fast. In our case, it took time. We got a few things wrong. We worked. We were lucky we had some very good investors too.” 

They stayed alive and now thrive, which is a great thing for future generations: “We have a bit of a karmic duty to undo some of the damage we helped create by making video games that are so exciting that kids never leave the couch. Biba helps with that mission. We are going to help figure this out. This is important. We are not going to get discouraged.” It seems that, just like playgrounds, Biba is here to stay.

The Biba app is available in the App Store and Google Play. To get a Biba playground in your neighborhood, contact Biba Ventures or their playground manufacturing partner PlayPower.