Thursday, March 24, 2011

Hide-and-Seek with Charley Harper

The modernist wildlife artist Charley Harper died in 2007, but his work lives on via books and merchandise featuring his recognizable art. It was only a matter of time before an app appeared, and Night and Day Studios has taken the challenge. Their Peekaboo Forest reconfigures elements of Harper's paintings and silkscreen prints (such as Foxsimiles, Weasel, and Octoberama) into a series of forest settings that change with the seasons. Rather than a story, Peekaboo Forest falls somewhere between a concept book and a game: touch an animated peeking-out tail or ear to reveal a labeled forest creature, accompanied by audio of the animal's sound and name.

The app features three narrators, in English and Spanish, who can be turned on and off. My favorite is the child narrator (credited as 3-year-old Hazel), who's adorably exuberant if occasionally harder to understand than her adult counterparts. The animal sounds are also optional -- but what's the fun in turning those off? Offering the choice to turn off narration while keeping animal sounds is a smart move, allowing sound to act as a clue to each creature's identity without having the answer imposed upon you by some know-it-all narrator. The sounds are sometimes surprising: along with the typical ribbits, buzzes, and squeaks, there are snorting and chomping noises. Some "peekaboos" are unexpected, too, as when eyes glowing in the dark illuminate a pack of raccoons.

While gorgeous and well-conceived in many ways, Peekaboo Forest does have some flaws. The order of animals' appearance is dictated by the app, rather than the user. Frustratingly, there's no way to skip from season to season or animal to animal; in order to see foxes in the fall, for instance, you have to make your way through winter, spring, and summer at 3–4 animals per season. The animations are non-repeatable, though a "loop" option allows you to cycle through the year indefinitely and catch 'em next time around.

Harper's boldly colored, geometric nature art -- with plenty of eye-catching patterns -- is well-suited to this kind of educational game, and Night and Day has nicely reimagined his work for a new format and young audience. I'm looking forward to seeing what the company does next (and hoping they work out a few kinks).

-- Katie Bircher

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