Sparkup Magical Book Reader

New Israeli tech toy takes kids away from screens and into books recorded by parents, grandparents or even themselves.

Sparkup attaches to any picture book, allowing kids of all ages to read along with the personalized, pre-recorded voice of any or all loved ones.

Sparkup attaches to any picture book, allowing kids of all ages to read along with the personalized, pre-recorded voice of any or all loved ones.

The arrival of his daughter Aviv in 2007 plunged successful Israeli event producer Amir Koren into a welcome new world of bath time, bed time and story time. Because of his frequent travels, he often could not fulfill Aviv’s request for her daddy to read to her.

So at the age of 30, Koren and his childhood friend and longtime business partner, Roei Simantov, switched gears and devoted four years to developing the Sparkup Magical Book Reader – an innovative device that brings the benefits of technology to the printed page. Aviv was their first focus group.

The battery-operated device attaches to the back cover, recording and playing back the voice of a reader that the child can follow at his or her own page-turning pace. Sparkup’s proprietary computer-vision software automatically recognizes the selected book, and activates the recording on whatever page the child turns to, even out of order.

“Digital screens dominate our kids’ lives today, but we know families still love to read quality, printed books,” says Koren. “We leverage technology to take kids and the whole family back to a fun, interactive and tangible reading experience.”

Teachers have used the device to have children record themselves reading, which provides another way to use Sparkup. Premium downloadable content planned for the future may make it possible for children to hear the book read by its main character – say, Peter Rabbit or the Cat in the Hat.

Books in any language

Priced at $59.99, Sparkup has the memory capacity for 50 books in any language. Different people can record versions of the same book, and users can also download prerecorded audio files from the website for a growing number of popular children’s books.

“One core feature is that it’s a multi-language product,” Koren tells ISRAEL21c. He currently has interested retail partners from Korea, France, China and the Netherlands. “There will be local versions in many countries,” he predicts.

With $3.4 million in funding from private investors in Israel and abroad, Sparkup launched last July on the QVC shopping channel. Now it’s sold at Amazon, the company’s website, the Canadian bookstore chain Indigo Chapters and other retailers, with a larger rollout planned for early 2014. Several thousand units have been sold.

Grandma can record a book with her grandchild to listen to any time.

 “We see 2013 as the year to learn how to ramp up production and mainly to gain knowledge from our customers on how to prepare for 2014, when we go more global and work with all the big-box stores in the US,” says Koren.

He notes that while toy companies have busily been developing tablets for children, he and Simantov wanted to help parents encourage a shift from passive viewing.

“We are trying to make history here in terms of doing a consumer brand for children that comes from Israel,” he says. “The statement we’re making is unique: We’re saying, let’s harness technology to take children away from the screen.”

Giving users an exciting experience

Based in the Galilee, the Sparkup team includes 10 sales, marketing, customer service and R&D engineers, who are further developing the platform for future iterations of the product based on the same patent-pending technology. The actual units are manufactured in China.

Sparkup has picked up endorsements from experts including Michael Levine, director of Sesame Street’s Cooney Center for Children’s Media and Research, who said, “Sparkup’s unique, intuitive technology makes reading with your child easier, more interactive and loads of fun.”

Product reviewers like the reader too, although it has been noted that Sparkup’s batteries must be changed the old-fashioned way. Koren and Simantov, both into yoga and ecology, are trying to find a way to make the product rechargeable. “We want to, but the biggest problem is regulatory safety issues for children’s products,” Koren says. “There are few children’s products that are rechargeable.”

User experience is the primary focus for Koren and Simantov, who started four companies together beginning at age 16.

“Until we were 30, we were entirely involved in the show business industry with a successful production company running events at bars and discothèques,” he says. “It was a huge business school for us. One of the major lessons we learned in show biz was how to give users a very exciting experience.”

For more information, see http://sparkupreader.com/.

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About Abigail Klein Leichman

Abigail Klein Leichman is a writer and associate editor at ISRAEL21c. Prior to moving to Israel in 2007, she was a specialty writer and copy editor at a daily newspaper in New Jersey and has freelanced for a variety of newspapers and periodicals since 1984.