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.
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.”
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.”