The iPad can be tons of fun for kids, but the trick is to balance hands-off activities like watching a movie with hands-on projects like making your own. Osmo is hands on--it's a set of iPad games played with real-world pieces, and unique stand with a red plastic piece that redirects the iPad's front-facing camera to the game pieces as your child interacts with them on a table or floor.
The three companion apps--Tangram, Words, and Newton--offer a range of experiences, from peacefully assembling tangram puzzles with wooden pieces, to flinging letter tiles onto the table to spell a word faster than your friend, to dreaming up solutions to a physics-based puzzler by drawing on paper or building contraptions with everyday items.
The beauty is, while kids in the target 6--12 age range can get hours of hands-on play with Osmo, the apps are simple enough to understand that they shouldn't need much help from you. Yes, of course you can play together--the apps encourage team efforts. But if you need to hand off the iPad to buy yourself some quiet time to work on something else, you can feel good that if kids are using Osmo, they're using their brains.
Let's get going
Calling the setup easy is an understatement--it's so beyond easy my toddler could do it. You just put the iPad in the stand, then place the red piece with the mirror over the iPad's camera. That's it. There's no charging, no Bluetooth, no Internet connection needed. A thin red line even appears at the top of the screen in each app to help you verify that you lined the red piece up correctly.
You do need a little space on the table or the floor in front of the iPad--this isn't a game for the car, in other words. But Tangram and Newton would both be fine at a restaurant table while you're waiting for your meal.
When you fire up the Osmo apps, they provide brief animated screens that show you what to do, without lengthy instructions or a tutorial. The game is rated for kids age 6 to about 12, and kids in that age group should be off to the races without much (if any) help from you.
But I can't get within a couple feet of my iPad without my almost--3-year-old son wanting to "help." So I let him, thinking it'd be a good test of the Osmo's user-friendliness--and hopefully validation for me that he's a genius, right? We had to play as a team, of course, and I had to explain to him what was happening. But he loved the games, and I mostly did too.
Words with kids
First we tried Words, which you play with a box of square letter tiles. A word is shown on the screen, along with a huge, colorful picture, and you slide, flick, or fling the tiles into the game area so the camera can see them. As you put the right letters in play to spell the word, they light up in place. Incorrect letters are stored at the top, and you lose after a certain number of misses. It's like Hangman with the picture serving as a really, really big hint.
Luckily for my toddler and I, you don't have to line the letters up carefully--as long as the camera sees it somewhere in its field of vision, it counts. You can play cooperatively, or versus, which is two players (or teams) racing each other. We played together, and he had a blast helping me identify the photos, sounding them out to guess what letters they have, finding those letters in the pool, and tossing them into the playing field. (You get a set of red and a set of blue letters, and for the cooperative mode you really only need one set.) And he especially loved when a little animation prompted us to clear the game board after guessing each word.
The words get harder as you play, in that they're longer or the pictures are more vague. And some boards present extra challenges, like to go fast or make fewer mistakes. So even though it's the same thing over and over, the game stays compelling for fairly long stretches. I'd love to see a way for parents to enter their child's spelling words from school!
Tangram was a little harder for my kiddo and me. He was familiar with the concept since he has a tangram toy, but we kept getting a weird error in the app that inhibited our progress: Our puzzle would be covered by a gray circle and a hand icon that looked like it was moving the pieces. I tried to figure out what it wanted, sliding our half-finished puzzle around to try to get the camera to see it again and dismiss the error. But with no words on screen and no other context clues, it was hard to tell what to do.
Sometimes moving the puzzle closer to the camera worked. Other times I had to just clear the whole board and start over. Maybe it was because our table is black and the room wasn't super bright and there wasn't enough contrast for the camera to see the pieces. Performance improved when I put down a white sheet of paper to build the puzzles on, but we still got that error intermittently. I don't know why, but it was as frustrating for me as it was for my boy.
When Tangram works, it's excellent, with soothing sounds, no time pressure, and the satisfaction of unlocking multiple new puzzles on an ever-expanding grid with each tangram you finish successfully. I'm sure an update (or better lighting in my living room?) could fix the error issue.
Newton is the most imaginative, and would be the toughest for kids my son's age. But he was highly interested when he saw me playing, and he loves to scribble, so we went for it. With Newton, you need to provide your own piece of paper and drawing instrument, and as the game spits colored balls from the top of the screen in a constant drip. You have to redirect them onto targets, which are often hidden behind solid barriers, by drawing lines on the paper for the balls to bounce off, or chutes for them to slide down--whatever you can dream up, the game's realistic physics will respond to.
Just make sure you have a lot of paper, or that you're not using a Sharpie--ours bled through so we could only draw on one side. (Pens and pencils worked better.) So we went through a lot of paper. The way the puzzles advance, we could use the same sheet for a couple of them, but if you mess up you can't really erase. We often had to grab a new sheet mid-puzzle (yes, even when I was playing by myself, without my scribble-happy assistant) until I finally realized I could repurpose some stray lines by just moving the paper itself. Then I got even smarter and found a small whiteboard to use instead. (This delighted my son, who crowned himself Official Eraser Guy.)
Newton really does encourage creative thinking like that, and in fact, it doesn't take long to realize drawing lines on paper is just the beginning. As soon as you reach your pencil (or Sharpie, if you're silly like me) toward the paper, the camera picks up the pencil's shape as well as your hand, which makes you realize that you can use whatever's around to direct the balls to their targets.
As the levels advance, the difficulty ramps up pretty quickly--the physics-based puzzles remind me of Where's My Water or Cut the Rope. So Newton would be fun for older kids working solo, younger kids working as a team...and yes, you yourself, once all those kids are in bed.
Little touches, small improvements
Osmo's clever hardware has a few nice design touches: The red piece fits into the base with magnets so you won't lose it. All the boxes snugly snap together with magnets too. Everything seems tough enough to withstand abuse.
Still, Osmo needs a few tweaks too. I was able to fit my iPad in the stand even with a fairly bulky third-party Lightning cable attached to the bottom, but it wasn't a great fit. The tablet sat up a little higher in the slot, which caused it to wobble a little more when I tapped the screen, compared to when it's fully seated in the slot. And the cable was bent at a pretty sharp angle where the stand met the table.
To be fair, slimmer Apple-branded Lightning cables fit much better. Still, I'd like to see a better way to thread a cable into the stand without straining it, especially since this game can be rough on battery life. After all, the camera is on the whole time you're playing.
I had as much fun with Osmo as my son did, and when he's a little older I'm sure he'll love it even more. Osmo would be great in classrooms, since it encourages kids to work together. More games would be welcome, especially ones that reuse the letter tiles. But even as it is today, Osmo is a worthy purchase for your favorite little iPad fans.