Pok Pok’s approach to AI and open-ended creativity spawns new ‘Forest’ update

Pok Pok continues to add new features to Pok Pok Playroom app

Pok Pok Playroom

Creative development studio Pok Pok has released a new ‘Forest’ update for its iOS play-based learning app for children, Pok Pok Playroom.

Pok Pok Playroom is an app designed to ignite creativity and out-of-the-box thinking in children between the ages of two to six. It hails from award-winning studio Pok Pok, which spun off from Toronto-based Snowman, the developer of critically-acclaimed titles like Alto’s Adventure, Alto’s Odyssey, and more.

Despite only being on the App Store since May 2021, Pok Pok has been regularly updating its subscription-based Playroom app with new toys and experiences.

What first began as a passion project for Pok Pok co-founder and creative director Esther Huybreghts, turned into a full-fledged project for a team of parents and creators.

Pok Pok Playroom Forest Update

“I just had my second son, and I needed something creative to do to get back into the game,” Huybreghts said in an interview with MobileSyrup. “We started Pok Pok as a hobby project — as a look and search type book.”

Pok Pok has since evolved to become something far more substantial. On May 20th, Pok Pok Playroom launched on iOS, offering creatively developed “toys” designed to incentivize kids to interact and play while learning about the world around them.

At launch, Pok Pok Playroom supported six open-ended toys with handmade animations, including ‘Busy Board,’ ‘Busy Book,’ ‘Silly Blocks,’ ‘Musical Blobs,’ and ‘Drawing.’ Since then, Pok Pok Playroom has expanded and introduced several new toys and updates, including the ‘House’ toy and ‘Silly Blocks.’

Fast forward to now, and Pok Pok has just launched its new ‘Forest’ toy.

“We started working on this toy years ago,” said Pok Pok CEO and co-founder Melissa Cash. “It was kind of different back then. We really wanted to do something with bugs and nature that would help spark conversations amongst families about the circle of life and climate change. In Pok Pok, because we have no language or text, we couldn’t be super necessarily blunt about those things. We gave as natural of an environment as we could to be a jumping-off point for that among the exploration and play.”

The Forest toy lets kids explore a forest biome and all the scurrying bugs and critters that inhabit it. Kids can interact with insects on screen and experiment to see how they react to one another and their environment. One example of this is a fly buzzing around a spiderweb. If you move the fly over the web, it becomes stuck in place. This open-ended design philosophy encourages kids to experiment and, as a result, learn about the real world. Children can also move and manipulate rocks, flowers and sticks to create their own scenes and witness how the behaviour of wildlife changes accordingly.

Notably, the Forest update is the first Pok Pok Playroom toy to utilize AI rather than being solely player-driven.

“All the little bugs have their own AI system,” explained Huybreghts. “It was a very, very challenging build to make.” Previously, with Pok Pok Playroom’s ‘Town,’ ‘House,’ and other toys, the “play” comes from kids interacting with what’s on-screen. In Forest, the critters move and interact on their own. It’s as if the child is walking into a living ecosystem, just as they would if they explored a forest in real life.

“We wanted to bring the sense of real nature into Pok Pok. It wouldn’t feel like a forest floor unless the creatures were going about their business. If you walk into a forest, they don’t just freeze and wait for people to interact with them.”

To bring that real-world quality into Pok Pok Playroom, the team ventured into their own local forests in Toronto and Belgium to map out the behaviour of each critter. “It was such a fun trip, and it was the first time we’ve seen each other since COVID,” said Cash. “The forest changes so much in the rain. This is something else that helped inspire the weather changes. In Pok Pok’s Forest, it can rain, and different things happen.”

Like Snowman, Pok Pok has received significant support from Apple through the App Store.

In June, Apple recognized Pok Pok Playroom for its innovations and awarded the team a 2021 Apple Design Award for ‘Delight and Fun.’ “We are a small team, but everyone is so dedicated and such a good fit,” said Huybreghts. “It was validation for [the team’s] efforts to be on that list.

“We branched off from Snowman for a reason. We have dreams that go far beyond just one app.”

Pok Pok Playroom is a subscription-based service with no in-app purchases and is exclusively on iOS devices. While the Forest update is available now, Pok Pok has plenty of other toys in the works to keep kids and parents invested.

“We have a lot of ideas,” Cash said. “We go through phases with big jams and prototypes and we take them to kids and see what the kids think. I think what people can expect is that we’re never going to stop making toys for Playroom. Whether that’s updating an existing toy or building a new one entirely — that’s always going to happen. We’re always very keen to experiment with technology and what’s possible.”

Pok Pok Playroom Forest update

Now that Pok Pok has experimented with AI, it opens the door to new possibilities for future content updates. “We really want to make sure it sticks to the fundamentals of Pok Pok, which are open-ended play, spark creative thinking, and imagination,” Cash explained. “It’s about letting kids follow their noses and do their own thing. No matter how many advances we have in the playroom, we’ll stick to those pillars.”

Although Pok Pok Playroom will continue to grow over time, the team’s ambitions could see Pok Pok become more than only an open-ended app and expand into a children’s brand that supports different initiatives.

“We branched off from Snowman for a reason. We have dreams that go far beyond just one app. We see Pok Pok as hopefully an amazing creative kids brand that will go a long way.”

Pok Pok Playroom is available in the iOS App Store through a $36.99 annual subscription or $4.99 monthly access.