The rise of voice and audio games is giving kids a break from screen time – Screen Shot
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The rise of voice and audio games is giving kids a break from screen time

Although the science behind whether screen time is actually bad for kids is not yet settled, many parents are still worried about their children spending too much time staring at tablets, televisions and phones—so much so that some are even hiring screen consultants to raise their kids ‘phone-free’. For these families, voice and audio games have arrived as a welcomed healthier alternative, and as a result, they have rocketed up the download charts during the COVID-19 pandemic. So what’s the buzz around voice and audio games, and could they become a future trend for adults too?

While most of those games run on voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, some don’t and were instead built similarly to a cassette player. Among them is the company Yoto and its Yoto Player, a screen-free speaker made for children, controlled with physical cards and “playing only the audio content you want them to listen to.” Yoto Player has no camera, no microphone, and no ads.

Just like the game cartridges you probably used in your Nintendo as a kid, users can click in a card pre-recorded with a story or game. Yoto can also play fresh daily episodes, such as the children’s daily newscast.

Back when Tanya Basu first reported on voice games in 2019 for the MIT Technology Review, they mostly took the form of choose-your-own-adventure stories and trivia competitions. Now, they are growing in sophistication. “The game Lemonade Stand, for example, lets kids practice running a business, while in Kids Court, a voice assistant adjudicates arguments between children by having them talk out their differences,” writes Basu in a recent overview of the games.

For most of those voice games, different players can play the same game without having to be in the same place, or playing at the same time. Max Child, founder of Volley, a publisher of voice games, says that grandparents will often play on their own time and text their grandchildren about their progress, and the children will advance their moves when they have a minute.

Volley’s most popular voice game is Yes Sire, an immersive tale that imagines the player as “the ruthless ruler of a fiefdom.” On top of the obvious positive point that audio games represent, parents also like the amount of creativity they require from players. With audio stories and games, information isn’t presented to you on a platter. On the contrary, imagination is required, and it takes more focus and attention than gazing at a screen. Because of that, it’s not just kids who are slowly renouncing screens; adults are a growing market for voice games too.

Volley, for example, has some “mature” games, like Love Taps, Sherlock, The Last Dragon and Infected, which include explicit language and content aimed at an older audience. And Yoto’s CEO Ben Drury even says that besides enjoying the opportunity to participate with grandchildren, older people have also found it empowering to be able to play games with their voices rather than learning how to navigate a console or controller.

Of course, they’re not perfect yet. Voice games often misunderstand users, particularly kids who are just learning how to enunciate, and it’s too soon to tell if the pandemic’s boom in audio and voice games will end as soon as vaccines make it possible to hang out in person once again. But until then, doesn’t a game of Infected sound fun instead of your usual go-to podcast?

Cooler Screens is the future that is happening in the frozen foods aisle

Out of all the high-tech software and products one would expect facial recognition technology to be used in, who would have imagined that it would make it into the sliding doors of supermarket freezers? Yet, the pharmacy store chain Walgreen’s (the equivalent of the U.K.’s Boots) is experimenting precisely with that. The doors of its freezers in over 15 shops in both New York and Chicago are now official ‘smart doors’, meaning that they display personalised ads based on the person’s features and behaviour as measured by cameras and Artificial Intelligence systems featured into the doors of coolers.


This comes after last November Walgreens partnered with Cooler Screens, a Chicago-based startup that makes “retail cooler surfaces into IoT enabled screens”, as described on the company’s website, by featuring facial-recognition technology and eye-tracking screens to store frozen food displays. And with that, Cooler Screens aims to pave the way for the next generation of in-store shopping.

Cooler Screens’ doors contain minuscule cameras, motion sensors, and eye tracking technology that enable them to display personalised advertisements to Walgreens’ customers in order to guarantee the right product is marketed at the right time to the right person. Based on your gender, your age range, but also on other facts such as the temperature outside, how long you stand in front of a section, and on your emotional response to a particular product, the AI targets you with what it believes to be what you really want, need; desire.  

Many agree that it was about time in-store marketing filled the gap between brands and customers by developing an internet-style advertising strategy that is able to offer customers the ad-hoc experience typical of online advertising. With such as Coca-Cola, Nestle, and MillerCoors already contracted with Cooler Screens, it seems as though we will encounter an increasing number of digital doors in the near future.

Of course this AI-powered marketing strategy raises the usual privacy concerns, such as, is this a privacy breach? Are these devices biased? And what about our autonomy when it comes to decision making? Responding to such criticism, Cooler Screens is set on keeping users feeling calm and secure, claiming that despite the use of facial recognition technology, the company only collects anonymous data and does not identify customers. “The business model is not built on selling customers’ data… The business model is built on providing intelligence to brands and to retailers to craft a much better shopping experience.” Said Arsen Avakian, co-founder of Cooler Screens.

No more wasting time comparing products. No more walking up and down the aisle looking for what you think you are looking for. No more buying unwanted goods. This is what Cooler Screens’ premise in embedded in. As this AI shopping software ensures a facilitated customer experience, I can’t help but wonder how this high-tech twist on real-life shopping could influence people’s taste to new and unpredictable extents.

Will this technology survive against the free will of buyers who attempt to remain immune the tide of Artificial Intelligence and its data-based predictions? Smart Cooler’s mission is only at its infancy, and it’s hard to predict its success in the long run. Yet the premise of its offering is undoubtedly attractive to both brands and retailers. Now, it’s only a matter of testing the digital doors’ performance and discovering whether you’ve been buying the wrong flavour ice cream for a decade.