Touchscreen entertainment has firmly established itself within the gaming and amusement sector and is now starting to make headway into the children's market. Helen Fletcher spoke to some of the manufacturers involved to find out what is involved and the possibilities of this sector...

When it comes to entertaining children in public places the one thing that springs to mind is children’s rides as they can be found in nearly all shopping malls, FECs and supermarkets. Parents across the world will use them as an offering for good behaviour from their children while they are dragged round endless shops.

But what if operators, shopping malls and other public places, where children can get bored easily, could offer a concept that educated the child while keeping them entertained and still make a profit?

Children’s touchscreen terminals aim to do exactly that and have even been given the name ‘edutainers’ by some in the industry. The games available on the terminals aim to support a child’s creativity, train their brain and improve their concentration through fun games.

According to Funworld’s Josef Ohlinger, children’s touchscreen terminals provide a proper entertainment activity with a lot of fun and an educational value while allowing parents to have some time for themselves, to do their shopping or visit the doctor, etc.

Funworld manufactures the Touch Toy terminal, which is aimed at children aged from three to eight and offers six games that have been developed with the help of psychological and educational experts.

Available as either a seat or table format, with or without a special case or design, the terminal allows children to paint or draw with their fingers on the screen, make a puzzle, look for differences between two similar pictures and pair up matching pictures.

"Our Touch Toy terminal has been operating in Austria for the past two years but has more recently started operating in Germany, Sweden, Finland and Greece," said Ohlinger.

The children’s touchscreen terminal market is one that is ever-expanding and with this in mind Funworld’s Touch Toy terminal is available in 13 languages including German, Italian, Greek, French, English and Spanish to name a few.

The benefits to a child are obvious - they are kept occupied while skills taught at school are reinforced through play. But what are the benefits to the operator of a child’s touchscreen product, particularly as a lot of locations tend to let the children play on them for free?

"The huge benefit of children’s touchscreens for operators in particular, is that they give a positive family-friendly image by providing a useful activity for children while parents have some time off from them, so they can concentrate on themselves for a moment," said Ohlinger.

And according to Merkur Gaming’s Susanne Wesemann: "The children, who will end up the future customers, won’t forget the location if there is a special entertainment system on offer such as children’s touchscreen terminals and offering it for free will increase this service image.

"As well as this, as the children are occupied nearby in a constructive and safe way the parents will be free to have a look round a shop or discuss things with a sales assistant in more detail."

Merkur Gaming’s Happy Kids terminal, which is currently operated in locations such as FECs, shopping malls, airports and leisure centres, as well as private locations including nurseries, all over the world, also aims to be educational but fun and can be coin-operated if required by the operator. The models and games can also be personalised using the operator’s own logo and corporate colours and are flexible when it comes to installation as the operator can fix it in all existing systems such as displays and counters.

Personalising the terminals to tie in with the operator’s demands is all well and good in theory but the terminal still needs to be attractive in its design to children and be simple enough to use to keep them interested.

David Doyle, technical director at Scottish company RedBox, which manufactures the Fingabox children’s touchscreen terminal, explained to InterGame how getting the design of the terminal right is one of the most important processes.

"When our unit was originally designed it was made to look similar to a television," he said. "We found however, that children playing would sometimes put their hand out to lean against the unit, which resulted in us incorporating a green lip into the design for them to lean on.

"The colours used are the first and most popular colours that children learn at school, but because the unit is fabricated from wood we can colour it to any colour the buyer desires."

Launched in 2002, the Fingabox terminal encourages children to be creative and requires no pens, paper or crayons yet lets the child draw and colour without creating a mess. As with most children’s touchscreen terminals, the Fingabox was originally designed to be free to customers, but according to Doyle, the demand for the product was such that it saw the company incorporate a coinbox mechanism on its single units, which in turn has opened up the number of locations it is suitable for.

"We have just launched our new 19ins model and are looking to launch our new coinbox model next month," said Doyle. "The terminals have proved to be popular in various locations ranging from airport departure lounges, hospital A&E areas, hotels, doctor and dentist waiting areas to children’s play areas within shopping malls and larger locations."

Through the Fingabox terminal the children reinforce their knowledge of colours and are able to change the picture colourisation any time they want, giving them the choice to see what things look like in their eyes.

Doyle went on to say: "Because it is a touchscreen system it also teaches and improves their hand-eye coordination and we have found that due to its ease of use that special needs children such as children with autism or Downs Syndrome find it an easy and stimulating system to use."

Whether a terminal is coin-operated or not depends, it would seem, on customer demand, as well as the market it is going into, for all manufacturers involved. The majority of children’s touchscreen terminals start out as a free service to children but then like the Fingabox terminal, the demand for profit is such that a coinbox is incorporated.

One company whose products currently remain free for the customer to use, with the location taking the cost of the product, is CD Meyer, based in the US. It develops touchscreen products and services in the form of games and informational programs that are completely customisable for use in museums, public venues and corporate exhibits.

Its terminals, which were developed in 2000, are mainly operated in the US, but there are also several installations in Canada and one in Australia.

According to Chris Meyer, of the company, the main factors it strives to meet when designing the terminals is ease of use, educational value and fun.

"It is also very important to maintain strict quality control so that the finished product is reliable in the field," he said.

Meyer went on to say that the children’s touchscreen market is one that is already pretty big but is continuing to grow.

"Although the number of facilities are not growing at a fast pace, the number of existing museums for example, deciding to incorporate interactive terminals is growing."

Although there is no reason why children’s touchscreen terminals cannot be modified to incorporate a coinbox, there are other ways of an operator making a profit from the terminals if they so wish.

The possibilities that touchscreen terminals can deliver to operators of large shopping malls, amusement arcades, FECs and supermarkets can go one step further and incorporate advertising opportunities from sponsors, providing the extra revenue desired.

Sound Leisure’s retail division, based in the UK, is one company that has turned this possibility into a reality with MiniMike, its latest touchscreen product, which has been developed with Dutch partner Instore Kids Corner (IKC).

The 10ins units, which are aimed at four to 12-year-olds and include a range of simple children’s interactive games, have been initially designed specifically for a supermarket in the Netherlands, where they have been on test for the past three months.

They are free to play and are situated among the products on the supermarket’s shelves with the games interspersed with advertisements from sponsors, which can also be used as screen savers when the unit is not being used.

IKC works exclusively within the realm of retail focused children’s play equipment and has completed large-scale installations for companies including Ikea and McDonalds.

The range of games available on the terminal are fun, informative and educational and IKC chose recycling as a main theme for one of the games, which according to the company, has proved very popular as it is a common theme in education across the whole age range.

Michael Black of Sound Leisure told InterGame: "Conventional digital retail promotions take place away from the product, such as above the aisle or hanging from the ceiling of the store, which can leave room for confusion.

"The MiniMike can be situated right alongside the sponsor’s products to ensure the benefit of the promotion is received by the sponsors."

Black went on to say that he feels consumers are now becoming disaffected by digital media promotions presented on grey boxes, hung from walls and ceilings, and that the wow factor of LCD and plasmas passed away some time ago as many consumers now have the same LCD or plasma equipment in their own homes. This means that something like the MiniMike can provide the supermarket with an alternative promotional avenue as well as providing entertainment for children while their parents shop.

But what are the additional benefits to a location incorporating a children’s touchscreen entertainment system rather than more traditional well-established amusements outside or in the foyer?

According to Black, in the case of the supermarket, where the product is currently placed, the use of children’s play terminals can also affect the shopping behaviour of the parents, which can be otherwise difficult to alter.

"The development completed with IKC was a response to studies showing a large percentage of shoppers followed the same route around a store each time they visited," said Black. "The scope of the project was therefore to try and change the customer’s chosen route within a store by using positive and entertaining methods."

Although children’s touchscreen terminals haven’t fully penetrated the coin-op market and remain a service that operators offer their customers for free, manufacturers of the products have shown this does not mean there isn’t the potential to make money from the terminals through other means, or as RedBox has done, add a coinbox.

As Michael Schwamm of Orga Control Amusements, based in Germany, puts it: "More and more clients want an entertainment system for children that is educational and violence free and are looking more and more for products to replace video consoles and so on."

The company’s wide range of terminals includes interactive and non-violent games, which require creativity, reaction and logical thinking from the children. The games are also supported by multi-lingual instructions and help functions.

Orga Control’s touchscreen terminals have been in the market since 1999 and operate all over the world from Europe to Australia to Russia and Asia - all markets which have strong coin-op amusement markets where the children’s touchscreen terminal could perform well.

And as the number of FECs and large shopping malls grows, especially in markets such as the Middle East, the number of opportunities for this product to succeed in a coin-op format will grow and grow.