LeVar Burton on Bringing 'Reading Rainbow'—the TV Show of Your Childhood—to the Tech of Today

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Take a look, it's on an iPad.

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It's difficult for someone from my generation to write an objective review of the Reading Rainbow iPad app. It seems akin to a comic-book purist reviewing the Watchmen movie, or a sports nut reviewing the MLB At Bat app. Had LeVar brought out a plate of warm chocolate-chip cookies and simply served them to us on an iPad, some reviewers would most certainly spend 1000 words describing the taste and texture of the cookies, another 500 on the origins and history of the recipe, and finish up with a note that the app is probably great as well. And I will not pretend that my own iPad did not tremor the least bit in my hands as I sat down earlier this week and discussed the future of my childhood dreams with the man himself, LeVar Burton.

With us were Mark Wolfe and Sangita Patel of RRKidz, the company that became the new steward of the Reading Rainbow brand after the show was dropped from PBS due to a lack of funding and, some said, the Bush administration's insistence on programs which focused on phonetics and grammar rather than teaching kids why they should read. PBS stated that their research backed this up, the show stopped production in 2006, and the final episode aired in 2009. Almost immediately thereafter Burton decided to move forward with a new vision for the show based around "webisodes for adults" and given a working title: "Reading Rainbow 2.0". Later that year, he partnered with Wolfe, according to this interview on NPR's Talk of the Nation, where he first mentions Wolfe's name in association with the company.

Since then, Burton and his team have been planning the next phase of the Reading Rainbow brand. This involved first moving from the public to the private sector, where they could pursue a long-term strategy and guarantee the show's financial stability. After the iPad came out, it shifted to focus on bringing children's books to the device. Yesterday, at a press event at Studio 450 in New York City, the company presented the first public demonstration of the app, which became available on the App Store late last night.

The Reading Rainbow iPad app is, at its core, a reading app for children's books -- though some light gamification is included in the form of a simple memory game and virtual stickers awarded for finishing books. The app will include one free book, after which parents will have to purchase a subscription. The price includes unlimited access to the 150 books currently in the app through a library model, and new releases will be included as the library grows. Up to five books can be checked out at once and added to the user's "backpack", which can be customized to suit each child's obsession. 

Books have been adapted and enhanced with simple animations reminiscent of motion comics, and kids also have access to a huge library of multimedia content with LeVar's famous video field trips. The company took great pains to ensure that the additional content did not detract from the reading experience, which is central to the app's mission -- not to mention its business model.

Unsurprisingly, the event included not only a beautiful arrangement of multicolored chairs, but also some playtime with the app for reporters, as well as a tiny table and beanbag chairs for the children in attendance to do some hallway usability testing. This last element was essential because, as a passing attendee noted, "It really doesn't matter what the adults do with it." While there was a handler present assisting some of the younger ones, for the most part the kids seemed to get into it fairly easily. One reader even fulfilled every parents' ultimate fantasy and let her cake sit unfinished while she wrapped up a book. (Had the app been available to the children in the marshmallow experiment, the results might have looked markedly different.)

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As for the app itself: it's a beautiful -- if imperfect -- translation of the Reading Rainbow experience. The interface passed my own stress tests (think lots of tapping, swiping, and generally acting as though only my right hand is having a seizure) without crashing, and scroll views were zippy even when scrolling through hundreds of titles. (The app will include one free book, after which parents are required to purchase a subscription for $10 per month. The price includes unlimited access to the 150 books currently in the app, and presumably to new releases as the library grows.) I was able to use it for about five to ten minutes without it dying from memory overuse. The team clearly worked hard to create a stable, responsive app, especially important given that the target market includes small children. Unfortunately for some parents, after testing with Apple's VoiceOver screen-reader I verified that the app is not fully accessible, so vision-impaired users will have to wait. Wolfe assured me that this was a top priority for the team, and that an update would be forthcoming.

In addition, the app suffers from an issue that plagues most iPad publications: books are stored as raster images, and hence take quite some time to download. The app does not appear to be fully optimized for retina screens, and on the studio's WiFi -- which, admittedly, was being used simultaneously by several demo units on the floor -- one book showed up as unavailable, and another took many minutes to load.

I spoke with Burton, Wolfe, and Patel at length yesterday about the app's development, why they chose to go iPad first, and some of the challenges they faced in bringing a public television series to a completely new medium. Here's an edited transcript of our conversation:

Eric Schmidt recently drew criticism over his prediction this past January that "six months from now" developers would be making apps for Android first. When choosing a platform, what made you decide to launch exclusively on the iPad rather than on Android or for both tablets? Was it purely a matter of market share?

BURTON: Um, it was a couple of things. Market share did weigh heavily into our decision. It was really a no-brainer for us. And we are currently working on porting over to certain Android devices. The Android market is kind of, um... [searches for the word] schizophrenic, and so part of the client's decision was to wait until there was a shake-out that happened and the readers emerged. And you have to understand that, you know when we embarked on this journey the iPad hadn't come out yet and, and the Kindle Fire certainly hadn't come out yet. So now there's more stability in that market, and we are really eager and excited about our Android version.

Let's talk about timing. NPR reported in 2009 -- almost a year before the launch of the iPad -- that "it seems Reading Rainbow's impending absence hangs like an open question about the literacy challenges that still exist and the role television should play." Why release an app now? Was it a matter of development time, getting enough publishers on board, or were other factors at play?

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Benjamin Jackson is a writer and app developer based in Brooklyn, New York.

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