Reading to children — even from infancy — is good for them, according to studies.
But there’s something in it for us grownups, too. We get to glimpse a slow grin spreading across pudgy cheeks as a child anticipates yet another “I do not like green eggs and ham!” refrain. We get to watch a hyper toddler pause in mid-block-tower destruction to calmly sit and listen. We get to use our best bear, duck and lion voices and become kids again, ourselves.
It should come as no surprise that technology companies keep trying to barge into the magical moment of reading aloud to a child. I’ve been testing Sparkup, one of the newer book-related gadgets, while reading with my almost-1-year-old son.
He’s a little young for this, and Sparkup doesn’t replace the experience of me reading to him. But this gadget worked in a way that felt natural, and would come in handy for kids with long-distance relatives. Best part: The technology in Sparkup isn’t intrusive.
This $60 device clips to the back cover of any picture book and instantly turns it into an audio book, recording your own voice reading each page. After the initial recording, Sparkup automatically plays back the recorded reading, page for page. If your kid skips ahead or back, Sparkup knows where you are, and plays the right recording.
So what’s the trick? Sparkup recognizes your spot in the book using a tiny camera and some built-in technology called “computer vision.” Computer vision, which is used in a variety of apps and devices, makes it possible for a camera to look at something and learn from it. In this case, each book cover or page is associated with a recording that plays aloud for the child to hear.
If this sounds familiar, you’ve probably seen or used a book with built-in recording and playback capabilities; my cousin, Jenny, gave us one as a baby gift and we love it.
Before I left on my first work trip after my son’s birth, I used it to record my voice reading the book. My husband said our son’s eyes lit up when he heard my voice, even though he was just four months old.
But the book we own is ideal for bedtime. I would have liked to record my voice reading one of my son’s favorites, like “Who’s At Home?” “Dear Zoo” or “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?”
Sparkup clips to whatever book your kid already likes.
Traditional voice-recording books have some other downsides: Most only hold one voice, recording over the first voice if you want to add a different voice. Their in-book microphones and speakers make the book thick and relatively pricey. And in the case of my book, the recording process was kludgy: We had to use a screwdriver to open a panel with the recording buttons.
Sparkup has just three buttons: A large center button that glows when it’s doing something, a record button and volume buttons. A simple tutorial plays the first time you use Sparkup, walking you through its easy recording steps. Each time you want to use it with a new book, you attach it to the back cover and close the book, so Sparkup sees the book’s front cover.
Though Sparkup doesn’t have any built-in Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, it can plug into your Mac or Windows PC, letting people do things like email audio files to one another. This could be a way for long-distance relatives to record their voices reading books they and the children they know own: Record the reading in one place with Sparkup, send the file to the kid’s parents, and the parents plug in their Sparkup to download the file and hear the audio reading with their own book.
In its current iteration, Sparkup comes with two books that each have their own associated audio, which is professionally done. Mine came with “Tikki Tikki Tembo,” which played gongs and other audio along with the reader’s voice as I turned the pages of a story I hadn’t heard since I was a kid.
Sparkup’s founder and CEO, Amir Koren, is working on an ambitious goal for Sparkup: Enabling these professional audio recordings for all of the children’s books available on Amazon.
Each Sparkup, which comes from an Israeli company of the same name, has 256 megabytes of storage — enough to record 50 or 60 average-length picture books. Most of the kids I know like reading the same dozen books over and over, so Sparkup will have most home libraries covered.
The company plans an updated version of this reader by the end of the year that will let people store enough audio for 100 books. It will also enable multiple recordings of a single book — say, Mom, Dad, Aunt Allison and Grandpa reading “Corduroy.” Farther ahead, Sparkup plans to also recognize text-only books — not just picture books.
Koren is careful to say that Sparkup isn’t meant as a replacement for parents reading to children. The company even plans to add tips to its website to guide parents on how they can become better readers to their children.
Sure enough, my son wasn’t nearly as engaged with books when the Sparkup audio was playing as when I read to him myself. But he is a lot younger than most of the kids who will use this. Lift-the-flap books, which he adores right now, are a little more complicated to record — though still possible.
I like that Sparkup works with books that parents and children already own, and I like that it encourages kids to read and listen in a way that doesn’t require using a smartphone, tablet or computer.