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Petaluma startup’s educational app plays with reality


What if you could open a book and have the characters spring to life from the pages to play and interact with? It sounds like fantasy, but the creative minds at Petaluma-based Wiggle Planet, are making it reality — an “augmented reality” that has the potential to disrupt the educational and entertainment industries.

Founded by Jeffrey Ventrella in 2012, Wiggle Planet has developed a software platform that allows for the creation of emotionally intelligent animated characters that can inhabit the world around us through geolocation-based augmented reality. Differing from virtual reality, augmented reality is a layer of the digital world on top of the real world. Augmented reality incorporates the real world as opposed to virtual reality that is designed to escape it.

It sounds complex, but for the average person it’s simple. The user downloads a Wiggle Planet app and through it is able to see and interact with a unique variety of animated characters called Wiglets that are “artificially alive.” Through the software they’ve developed, the Wiglets incorporate artificial intelligence, virtual physics and genetic inheritance, which make them completely different from the characters in video games.

“They are dynamic characters that can be used in particular for storytelling,” said John Lester, lead technology evangelist for Wiggle Planet. “They are not pre-programmed or scripted agents. They are artificially alive. They have dynamic, evolving behaviors. And the best way to summarize it is this: it’s augmented reality plus artificial life as an overlay on the physical world.”

MIT to Petaluma

Ventrella has been working in the field of augmented reality and artificial life for many years. He attended the MIT D-lab in the 1990s, and before that was experimenting with genetic algorithms at Syracuse University. He planned to go into character animation, but got the computer programming bug and started working out techniques for making characters with software.

His computer programming and artistic background eventually led to the creation of Wiggle Planet, which operates out of Work Petaluma, an independent workspace owned by Natasha Juliana and Matt Moller. It’s located on Fourth Street and is designed for telecommuters, start-ups and small businesses.

“Natasha at Work Petaluma has been a creative resource for us,” said Ventrella. “She’s provided us with a lot of support and help.”

Much of the staff at Wiggle Planet lives in Petaluma, including operations manager Jackie Van Winkle and Barry Stump, who wrote a lot of the code for the company’s iPhone app.

Crowd funding

A Kickstarter campaign launched a year ago helped Wiggle Planet create several products, including apps, greeting cards, games and a children’s book, “Peck Peck’s Journey,” starring the Wiglet bird, Peck Peck, who comes to life right out of the pages of the book.

“You can grab her and move her around, so it’s very interactive,” said Ventrella. “Kids love it. You can tap the fruit on the tree, which drops seeds that she eats. There’s a scene where she poops on a seed and a flower grows, so kids get to learn about compost and the ecology of life. All of this is fun play. She’s a virtual pet.”

Artificial intelligence

What makes Peck Peck and other Wiglets different from other animated characters is its “artificial life,” which is born and exists within the software Wiggle Planet developed. The characters interact with the user and with other Wiglets and can be combined to create unique characters the user owns.

“These techniques have been evolving for about 20 years,” said Ventrella. “When I was at MIT, artificial intelligence was a big thing. It still is now, but it seems to have moved in the science fiction direction. At MIT, artificial life, which is an off-shoot of artificial intelligence, is more about a fundamental modeling of the way nature comes about — how things evolve. It includes sensors and actuators and certain parts of a virtual creature and how it interacts with an environment in real time. Artificial intelligence was invented to try to simulate human thinking, which is really hard and still is impossible.”

“Artificial intelligence can be made to do one specific thing really well, like play chess for example, but you can’t have a conversation with it,” added Lester.

“The interesting thing is that when we see animations of humans that use artificial intelligence, we can see that it’s fake,” said Ventrella. “It becomes creepy. Whereas these animated characters (Wiglets) are engaging to begin with. They aren’t as intelligent as we are, but they have a tiny piece of intelligence we can detect because they respond to us and each other. It’s a kind of artificial life that quite literally is evolving as we build the software and add more genetics to it.”

Interactive characters

The Wiglets are designed to exist in specific geographic locations. In order to view and interact with Wiglets, a user opens the Wiggle Planet app on their phone or tablet. The geolocation is recognized by the software on the smart device, and then the Wiglets can be seen.

“The wonderful thing is that your phone knows exactly where you are anywhere on the planet,” said Lester. “So when you approach a location, your phone can tell you there’s a Wiglet there. The Wiglets are actors and the world is their stage.”

The possibilities for this type of technology are not hard to fathom. Wiglets could be used as educational tools, tourism, marketing, business, games and film. And because they are intelligent and interactive, the user becomes much more engaged and connected to the characters.

“Thinking locally, you could imagine making Wiglets that look like chickens,” said Lester. “Because Wiglets are location based, a tourist could come in and find 20 chicken Wiglets in the park, decide to adopt one, and remove it from that geolocation and move it to their home location. That person’s neighbor sees the Wiglet, clicks on it and learns that it’s a Petaluma chicken. It can then tell you the story about Petaluma and where it came from.”

Future development

Ventrella said their focus and vision for the future of Wiggle Planet is to develop their technology even further so it can be used by third party developers to create educational games.

“We can provide something that constantly creates novelty for games in the future,” said Ventrella. “These characters are owned by people but the particular games would allow the characters to be in their games.”

In the works are two new applications. The first is another children’s book where kids learn to spell by putting letters in a tray. The Wiglets dance and help kids learn about spelling. The second project is a large-scale satellite-based air quality application that produces data about air quality in real-time.

“We’re talking about putting Wiglets out into the world where people can engage with them and learn about air quality,” said Ventrella. “So let’s say you have a child with asthma and you want to know every day what the quality of the air is. These Wiglets can take something very complex and help personify the data in a way that is more emotionally engaging.”

While the company is positioned on the brink of something big, Ventrella’s focus remains on using the technology for education and getting kids (and adults) away from the virtual world, including the Internet, which he feels has disengaged society.

“We want this company not be seen as a tech company, even though high technology is at its core,” said Ventrella. “It’s really about environmental education and storytelling.”

(Contact Yovanna Bieberich at yovanna.bieberich@arguscourier.com. On Twitter at Yovanna_ Argus.)