Six year-old Ava gives a whoop and pumps her arms in the air after the plastic puzzle piece her small fingers fit into place directed her avatar on the screen to victory. Digital Dream Labs, a startup by Carnegie Mellon University alumni, wants to harness that excitement of gaming and apply it to learning subjects like chemistry and computer science.
Puzzlets, the startup's flagship product, is a game system that combines tactile game pieces with mobile-app technology. The Puzzlets' starter pack launched this month and includes Cork the Volcano, a game to help players age six and up develop programming skills.
Digital Dream Labs was created by Peter Kinney (CS 2011, ETC 2013), Justin Sabo (ETC 2012) and Matthew Stewart (ETC 2012), who met at CMU's Entertainment Technology Center (ETC). For a project, Stewart helped to design an exhibit of large wooden puzzle pieces that allowed children to manipulate colorful projections on a wall, under the guidance of the Pittsburgh Children's Museum's Jane Werner and Lisa Brahms. The museum exhibit was a hit. Kinney and Sabo joined Stewart to expand upon the idea.
"The team was one of the fastest to evolve a product for children's and science museums to one with a broad consumer appeal. The team works really well together, plus they have been able to attract really strong, seasoned advisers," said Kit Needham, associate director and entrepreneur-in-residence at Project Olympus, part of CMU's Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
A defining moment came when Digital Dream Labs was accepted in 2013 to the startup incubator AlphaLab, which Kinney said gave access to "other startups going through the same stages, so you could talk through issues with people."
For the past two years, the team has planned, developed, attended the international toy fair in New York City twice, and negotiated with retailers and suppliers. The combination of all these efforts is Puzzlets.
"Digital Dream Labs is a great example of how a graduate student project team at ETC can spin off into a company," said ETC Director Drew Davidson. "They take a proof of concept developed in school, build on those ideas and move forward in new and exciting directions that lead to actual products on the market."
Digital Dream Labs plans to continue making apps for Puzzlets with other subject material. The fruits of their labor are evident in the victory cries of young players. An excitement for learning combined with critical thinking skills may be a recipe for innovation in the future workforce.