In 2015, Bryanne Leeming was daydreaming in class at Babson College. "Two words came into my mind: electronic playground," says Leeming, 28. The idea kept her at her computer until 3 a.m., as she Googled everything from "MIT Media Lab research" to the toys she'd played with as a child.
That daydream evolved into floor tiles dubbed Unruly Splats, because their embedded blotch-shaped lights resemble spilled milk. Splats light up and make sounds, including speech, as kids race around and jump on them. Using an app, children can program the Splats to change their responses, modify preloaded games, or simulate musical instruments.
Leeming's bigger game is to teach kids coding and STEM while ungluing them from screens and keeping them active. Her company, Unruly Studios, has already had a successful Kickstarter campaign, raising $600,000 from investors. It's also landed in an Amazon accelerator and scored staff and advisers from Mattel, Disney, and MIT Media Lab. In August it won the Small Biz Salute Pitch Off, a contest sponsored by the UPS Store and Inc. that drew thousands of applicants from across the U.S.
The daughter of New Hampshire restaurateurs, Leeming has long imagined a career among kids. For the first prototype, she cadged some engineering advice, then she and her husband went to Home Depot and "spent the weekend building a frame," she says. "Then I went to a maker space and learned how to solder and use Arduino," a prototyping platform for interactive electronic objects. The resulting 4'x4' wood surface, embedded with electronics, barely squeezed into her car when she carried it to schools and other sites so kids could test it. (More than 3,000 have.)
Splats now comprise multiple tiles. Leeming had assumed her team would supply game ideas. But, she says, after soliciting feedback from kids at every audition--and winding up with hundreds of new ideas, mostly executed in crayon--"I realized how much better it would be to open it up and let kids make the games."
The approach is resonating. "Quite a few students whom teachers had identified as uninspired really took to Splats," says Jason Behrens, innovation director for Somerville, Massachusetts's public schools, where fifth- and sixth-graders at Winter Hill Community Innovation School piloted Splats earlier this year.
Currently, two tiles cost $149.99, and Unruly Studios is fulfilling orders from its $42,500 Kickstarter campaign, along with those from the 20 or so schools piloting Splats. "When we talk about coding, people think the marketplace for schools is the computer lab," says Amon Millner, an assistant professor at Olin College of Engineering and an Unruly advisor. "The gym can be part of that landscape."