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East Liberty startup Digital Dream Labs extols hands-on learning

| Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, 4:48 a.m.
Aaron Clark, 23, Studio Art director, Matt Stewart, 27, Cofounder, Peter Kinney 24, Cofounder and Justin Sabo, 30, Cofounder of Digital Dream Labs stand in front the iterations of their Cloud board game at their workspace in East Liberty, Wednesday.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Aaron Clark, 23, Studio Art director, Matt Stewart, 27, Cofounder, Peter Kinney 24, Cofounder and Justin Sabo, 30, Cofounder of Digital Dream Labs stand in front the iterations of their Cloud board game at their workspace in East Liberty, Wednesday.
Peter Kinney 24, Cofounder and Justin Sabo, 30, Cofounder of Digital Dream Labs demonstrates Cloud board game at their workspace in East Liberty, Wednesday.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Peter Kinney 24, Cofounder and Justin Sabo, 30, Cofounder of Digital Dream Labs demonstrates Cloud board game at their workspace in East Liberty, Wednesday.

Digital Dream Labs' three founders are building a company to help children move from computers to a higher level of thinking.

Their main product is like a computer and keyboard, yet different.

The startup is gearing up to produce “cloudBoard,” which enables kids to control video games and find solutions to obstacles in the games on a tablet by rearranging real, hands-on puzzle blocks. Software titles under development include “Cork the Volcano” and “Monstrous Molecules.”

“It takes a digital environment to a higher level of thinking,” CEO Matt Stewart said. “It's really all based around having that piece in their hand.”

The cofounders — Stewart, Peter Kinney and Justin Sabo — say today's kids learn to touch a screen before they can talk and “are losing touch with the world around them.” They cite work by researchers from Harvard University and others published by Scholastic on the benefits of hands-on activities.

CloudBoard, a keyboard with blocks and icons instead of keys, lets kids “discover the satisfaction of playing with their hands. It makes kids stop and think about what they're doing, and build a solution,” said Kinney, 24, the company's software expert.

“It makes those physical relationships mean more than the game,” said Sabo, 30, responsible for design.

The team got its spark at Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center two years ago while working on gaming technology. They refined the product at Alphalab, a five-month program for technology startups run by Innovation Works, a government-funded nonprofit. It started Alphalab in 2008, and recently started Alphalab Gear to focus on hardware startups.

“We were unique at Alphalab, because we had both hardware and software,” Sabo said.

The first version, Dream Table Top, grew from brainstorming sessions at CMU.

“We just played with toys,” said Stewart, 27. “It was all about creating interactive experiences and figuring out how kids could play with it.”

Dream Table Top fulfilled an idea proposed by the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh to find a way to present elementary programming challenges to children 4 and older. Stewart said early tests focused on whether users liked it. “By the time we delivered it in May 2012, everybody pretty much went bonkers over it,” and then other museums wanted one.

In September 2012, The Children's Museum of Houston attended a Pittsburgh event for inventors and hobbyists and ordered a Dream Table Top. It became the first paying customer.

“The kids absolutely love it, and it's been a big success for us,” said Keith Ostfeld, director of promotions at the Texas museum, which calls it Animation Station.

Kids assemble a character and give it size, color or location, like a puzzle, but no specific goal. They create story lines, often with the help of parents.

“... When you apply all the skills together, it becomes a really powerful learning activity.”

At the Pittsburgh museum, Digital Dreamland is just as popular, said Rebecca Grabman, manager of the Make Shop, where kids explore hands-on activities.

“It's more free-form exploration; kids change the way characters look and make up stories,” Grabman said.

The company has generated $63,000 in revenue from Dream Table Top and will deliver two more to museums in Texas. Prices vary, depending on features, Stewart said.

But the museum market is too small to support significant growth, which led the creators to rethink design and turn the Dream Table Top “into a commercial product that could be used at home,” Stewart said. Kids at the museum tested ideas.

“We knew we were on the right track when the kids who played early in the day came back later,” Stewart said. “We also asked parents, ‘Would you buy it?' ” That process yielded the product that Stewart and his partners intend to market this year.

Next month, they'll see whether Digital Dream Labs itself can go to another level — sell to the home market.

They'll work to attract the attention of manufacturers and investors at the American International Toy Fair 2014, sponsored by the Toy Industry Association, in New York City on Feb. 16-19. It is expected to attract 1,000 exhibitors.

They are prepared to manufacture cloudBoard themselves in limited quantities for sale and have talked to toy retailers about carrying the product, Stewart said.

To fund its growth, Digital Dream Labs has borrowed $125,000 from Innovation Works. It received $100,000 from Innovation Works' Technology Commercialization Fund, and $50,000 from CMU's Open Field Entrepreneurial Fund.

John D. Oravecz is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7882 or joravecz@tribweb.com.

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