With its four colorful, fat buttons, the keyboard for Webee is an irresistible magnet for little hands. Its inventor hopes it will also be a magnet for parents seeking to give their youngsters a head start on independent learning and computer literacy.
“Kids are open to learning and aren’t fearful of new things,” says Racheli Van Buren, an Israeli high-tech executive who has been refining the product concept since her oldest child, now 18, was still in diapers.
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“At age two, a child can learn three different languages and adults cannot. So it’s the right age to introduce learning experiences, but most parents don’t have the opportunity or the tools to do this. We decided to give them that opportunity.”
Webee (not to be confused with the Facebook business app MyWebees) is a game console based on “software as a service” (SaaS). No downloads or installations are required. The special keyboard plugs into any computer or laptop via a USB connection to access Webee’s educational games through the website.
Parents or teachers can create unique profiles, allowing the children to play interactively in a secure environment.
Keyboard rather than touch screen
Van Buren initially thought about using a touch screen, which was virtually unknown when she first began tinkering with the business concept. But she decided that a durable keyboard (she calls her invention a Jumboard) that fits over the regular keyboard would be more kid-proof and attractive to little ones. One boy in a test group even slept with the Jumboard under his pillow, she reports.
Having only four keys also cuts down on the margin for error and frustration, she says, because the user can make no more than three incorrect guesses.
The interactive keyboard comes with software development and educational development kits that allow anyone with the right know-how to create and sell their own online games, as well as offline content and worksheets based on existing Webee games.
Each of the interactive games revolves around “Webee,” an animated bee that accompanies children as they learn skills such as counting and color recognition.
Why a bee? “We wanted a ‘friend’ for the children, someone to explain the games, but not a boy or girl,” Van Buren tells ISRAEL21c. “Bees work hard and they are very smart.”
Kickstarting the business
Van Buren and her husband and business partner, Danny, formally founded their company in April 2010 with their own money and several other private investments. Webee is a portfolio company of the Nomadigo Business Accelerator in Tel Aviv.
Hoping to have the newest platform, games and keyboard on sale by December in Russian, English and Hebrew versions, they gained international exposure – and a few financial backers — for the product through a recent Kickstarter crowd funding campaign.
Distribution agreements are already in place with companies in Israel, India, Australia and Russia. The US market is, of course, the prime target, and Van Buren says negotiations are under way with interested parties.
“We prepared it from the beginning to easily switch languages,” she says. “We don’t have text in all the games — only letters — and we discovered that children can actually play the games in any language. It’s a wonderful way to learn a language because it’s very intuitive.”
The Van Burens engaged several consultants to help them develop the product. Ora Segal Drori, a child development specialist at the Levinsky College of Education in Israel, tested the prototype with groups of children in nursery schools, with and without their parents present.
“Sometimes the children were so excited to try it that they waited patiently for more than an hour for their turn,” Van Buren says. “It was fantastic.”
The company employs 15 people — four software developers in addition to animators, a quality assurance specialist and project manager.
Van Buren has a degree in computer science from Tel Aviv University, and worked over the past 25 years in software technology for several big companies, such as Elbit Systems and TTI Telecom. As vice president of R&D for Tadsec, she most recently worked on command and control (C&C) systems for the $20 million “Safe Cities” artificial intelligence project in Juarez, Mexico.