Neon Wild’s Genesis Story

WhenCOVID-19 hit the US in early 2020, I was living in sunny Miami, Florida, working at an augmented reality start-up, Magic Leap. I spent long hours at the office working with highly talented people to bring our version of the metaverse to the world. We initially called it the Magicverse 😃. Like millions of others in spring 2020, I endured the abrupt shift from traditional office life to working from home. I was working in a two-bedroom apartment, living with my wife, Jennifer, and our boys, Joey and Marcello.

Though I am grateful I had a home to work from, it was tough maintaining my workflow. Our boys, who were two and four years old, showed great resilience even though there were no more playground trips, beach days, or swimming lessons. We all spent a lot of time playing and being imaginative indoors while trying to limit screen time outside of virtual preschool on Zoom.

The spring of 2020 became summer, then fall, but still no traditional “back to school” as COVID raged on. The 2020–2021 school year had many challenges, and I am thankful we had access to high-speed Internet, devices, and knowledge of virtual communication. As a family, we did our best to craft a safe environment for my children to learn, play, and adapt. Many sleepless nights were spent on my phone, researching COVID, connecting with other parents, trying to make the best life for my family. It wasn’t all heartbreak and loss as lockdown revealed a new reality. We finally had more time to spend together as a family.

Before the pandemic, I didn’t have as much time to spend with my kids. For most of my boys’ lives, I left the house early each morning and returned just in time to say good night. Now, our increased time together set the stage for us to write and perform plays, create art projects, and interact freely with (mostly) educational tech and entertainment. Spending more quality time with family allowed me to see my kids in a new light. As I became more involved with their education, I noticed how kids play, engage with digital media, and use their imaginations.

How to connect parents and children to the educational world through imagination and digital media became a recurrent theme in my research. Conversations I had with other parents led to user research so I could find ways to best aid families all over the country. I spoke with parents informally at first then in the form of proper customer research. This process led to feedback from parents, kids, educators, and others working in my field which sparked the idea for Neon Wild.

Insight #1: Lack of diversity and positive body image in children’s platforms

When my son, Joey was four, he started a superhero phase, complete with action figures and make-believe adventures. Watching my son play with roided-out superheroes and scantily clad, objectified heroines gave me the same icky feeling of scrolling through Instagram.

Superhero toys are also problematic in terms of diversity. Despite repeated calls for diversity in children’s entertainment, superheroes are predominantly white. This dynamic portrays heroes as white and leaves people of color out of the story. All children deserve to see themselves represented as heroes in narrative spaces.

Insight #2: Kids want to be the center of the story

Whenever my son and I would play or read stories, he would often say “this is me, daddy” or “that’s mommy” which placed family members right into the narrative. After some research, and many hours speaking with other parents and observing other kids’ play, mostly via Zoom, I saw this pattern emerge. Kids want to be in the story.

Insight #3: Social Emotional Learning is essential and underutilized

Zoom school was unhelpful for a 4-year-old, so I searched for age-appropriate apps to fill the gaps in my son’s education. There are a ton of math and reading apps but very few quality apps that help children learn relationship skills, self-awareness, and social awareness. These skills are fundamentals of Social Emotional Learning (SEL), an important part of child development and education that was new to me.

As a framework, SEL has a positive impact on a broad range of student outcomes such as mental wellness, academic performance, and emotional regulation (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, 2020). The more I learned about SEL, the more I thought how can my kids get more of this?

Next, I pulled in three of my closest colleagues, Carlos, Stephanie, and Matthew to share these ideas and join Neon Wild as co-founders. As a team, we have enjoyed speaking with parents, educators, and kids, refining our hypotheses as we build the platform. Throughout 2021 and 2022, we have worked long nights and weekends on top of our full-time jobs. We are diligently building our tech, refining our stories, developing business models, and just genuinely having fun.

This upcoming year we are excited to get the magic of Neon Wild into people’s hands. In 2022, children will be represented like never before, as heroes of all colors, shapes, and sizes in a safe and imaginative environment. We are excited for you to join us!

See you in the Neon Wild!

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