Category Archives: Tech


LaLa Lunchbox App-etizes Your Child’s Meals


I can’t decide how I feel about this. Billed as “a fun and easy way for kids to plan and pack lunches with their parents” and something that “empowers your kids, teaches them to make smarter food choices and helps them learn about advance planning,” LaLa Lunchbox is a $1.99 app that adds a layer of gamification to the simple — yet occasionally quite aggravating — act of planning your kids’ lunches.

If your kids are anything like mine (and judging from the fact that LaLa Lunchbox is a thing, most of them probably are), getting them to eat their lunch (or breakfast, or…I need a drink) can be a complicated process that involves bribery, treachery, and pleading. There are a million excuses for not emptying one’s lunchbox, and you’ll hear them all. However, unless you’re some kind of meal dictator, I sort of doubt that “because you didn’t ask me what I wanted” is one you’re going to hear very often.

So yeah, I’m sort of ambivalent about this. Gamification tends to be helpful when you’re trying to con yourself into completing an unpopular task or fulfilling a long-term goal, but eating generally doesn’t fall into either of those categories, especially when you’re young enough to depend on a parent to make your meals. I’m sure it’ll make choosing meals more fun for kids, but will it make kids more likely to eat them? I have my doubts. My daughter’s favorite excuse is “I didn’t have enough time.” I don’t see how personalizing a virtual lunchbox with “fun monsters and colors” will change that.

On the other hand, what the hey, it’s $1.99. If you’re desperate to stuff some lunchtime calories in your little one and you have an iGadget at home, it might be worth a splurge. Give it a shot and let me know how it goes. and the Dawn of Curated Kindie Content

Kindie culture is a burgeoning movement, but one of the most refreshing things about the scene — the lack of corporate machinery whirring around it — also works against efforts to raise awareness of the work. Unless you’re a devotee, it’s easy to remain unaware of some really terrific stuff. Hell, I spend a fair amount of time covering it, and I’m constantly finding out about artists I’ve never heard of. The commercially diffuse structure of the genre keeps the suits from taking over and ruining everything, but it’s also sort of a problem.

One of the things that’s missing is the sort of third-party curation that usually comes with the maturation of a medium, which is one of the reasons why it’s interesting to note the arrival of, a Web service and iPad app that aims to guide parents into a sort of walled garden of family-friendly nirvana. (Not Nirvana. Those guys aren’t allowed.)

What Jitterbug does, in surface terms, is collect music and music videos for kids, and plug them into a bright, easily navigable central space where they can be seen and enjoyed. It’s basically YouTube/Spotify for the younger set. The concept isn’t exactly new, but Jitterbug adds a couple of twists: One, they focus on independent artists who aren’t getting a lot of push from other family content portals, and two, they’re charging a monthly fee in order to pay the artists royalties.

Those are crucial points. If Jitterbug is successful — and that’s a big if — it could go a fair way toward helping kindie artists monetize their art. I don’t envy the company in its quest to find a suitable price point for the service, but if they can figure out a way to really show people what they’re trying to do, I think there’s a real market for Jitterbug.

The hangup is actually getting people to pay for it. Jitterbug follows a similar service, MyKazooTV, with a free model and a more heavily guided structure. At MyKazooTV, videos start playing as soon as you navigate to the site, rather than waiting for you to choose — a different and obviously in no way better or worse approach, but as most parents will probably say, “Hey, it’s free.”

I don’t mean to insult free — I like free — but as a model for driving creation, it kind of sucks. Which is why, despite experiencing some bumps in the road with somewhat buggy early versions of the Jitterbug app, I hope it catches on. I can vouch for at least one six-year-old girl who adores the app, much to her Coco Loco-loving younger brother’s chagrin; for her, it’s endlessly fun and fascinating to watch her favorite artists act out their musical adventures in clips for songs she knows by heart. I already curate my kids’ cultural experience pretty heavily, but if I were feeling a little lost in my search for family-friendly music, I’d definitely consider ponying up for a monthly Jitterbug account.

How much is it worth? Again, that’s hard to say. Jitterbug faces an uphill fight — as consumers, we’re already saturated with subscription-model entertainment, from the stupid cable bill to more affordable services like Netflix and Spotify. I think what the company might need to do is develop a freemium model a la Daytrotter, where ordinary users have access to a certain amount of content, but the really good stuff is locked away — and the key is stupidly affordable. Unfortunately, a lot of parents don’t think kids’ entertainment is worth paying for and/or aren’t particularly worried about the quality, which can’t help but marginalize the commercial prospects of independent artists who are actively trying to elevate the medium. It’s a catch-22, and so far, no one’s really been able to solve it. Services like this one could be part of the answer.

App Review: Marvel Infinite Comics

As those of you who follow my writing elsewhere may already know, I’m sort of obsessed with the death of the American monoculture — particularly as it pertains to the ways in which the institutions of my youth adapt to the new, niche-driven realities of 21st century entertainment (or die trying).

Comics are a terrific example. As we discussed a few days ago, the general malaise suffered by the publishing industry is reflected pretty sharply in kid-targeted titles, where the last 20 years have been marked by a more apparent willingness to try new and crazy things to hang onto their target demographic’s attention. The drive to digital, accelerated by the advent of tablet computing over the last few years, has posed a brutal conundrum for comics — consumers are buying fewer paper copies, but the publishers haven’t been able to embrace ebooks without alienating the independent shops that have been their bedrock for generations. It’s prompted a weird series of tentative steps and half-measures that haven’t satisfied anyone.

Marvel finally looks like they’re ready to change all that with their recently unveiled “Infinite Comics” initiative. Like most things comics-related, it arrives with an avalanche of silly hyperbole, but after years of tinkering with the format, Marvel actually has something to crow about this time — if the first “infinite” title, Avengers vs. X-Men: Infinite #1, is anything to go by, we could finally be looking at the future of the medium. And with something to offer older readers as well as new fans, that future could be surprisingly bright.

Marvel Comics

As any comics fan could tell you, digital comics are nothing new — and neither are tablet-optimization schemes like the dreadfully annoying “Motion Comics.” What’s different here is that instead of just trying to wedge traditional content into the digital sphere, Marvel’s Infinite Comics have been designed to actually try and bridge the gap between paper and the screen — the artwork doesn’t move, necessarily, but it does use an assortment of subtle tricks to guide the reading experience, forming a sort of hybrid between a traditional comic and something like a film. It’s cinematic without being pushy about it.

The best example of this technology in action in Avengers vs. X-Men #1 is the way the comic shifts focus in a single panel. These screencaps don’t truly do it justice, but they’ll give you an idea of what I’m talking about:

It’s a nifty effect. Nothing breathtaking, but that’s sort of the point, at least as I see it; touches like these take advantage of the tablet’s capabilities without fundamentally altering the experience of reading a comic. It’s smart, and in some ways, I think it might even be preferable to reading on the printed page — as writer Mark Waid, Marvel Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada, and Senior Editor Nick Lowe discuss in their “commentary track” for the issue over at Comic Book Resources, one key difference is that writers can design the story to preserve the element of surprise. You can’t accidentally glimpse a panel on the next page, because it isn’t on the screen; the creators are guiding you through the experience at the right speed.

What this will mean for Marvel’s relationship with the shops, I have no idea. But if the comics industry has a prayer of getting readers to make the jump to digital, I think it has to start with Infinite Comics — at least based on this issue, they’re smartly done and affordable ($3.99 for the 99-page issue, which bundles the “infinite” book in with the plain ol’ vanilla “HD” Avengers vs. X-Men #1). I haven’t been a real comics reader since the ’80s, but now that my son is developing a superhero obsession, Marvel could bring me back into the fold.

(It also bears mentioning that the company has rolled out a Marvel AR app, which gives readers video and assorted extra content when they scan in QR and/or barcodes with their device, but I find that kind of thing a lot less interesting, so I haven’t tried it. Feel free to let me know if you think I’m missing out.)