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Kids go out for a byte

Child-friendly computers are popping up all over. Places that cater to kids -- museums, libraries, stadiums, zoos, retail outlets -- have built computer kiosks. And a handful of Twin Cities-area Burger Kings are among the first to install `virtual fun centers' this month.


JULIO OJEDA-ZAPATA STAFF WRITER
As Michele Riggs fished Pop Tart chunks out of her home computer's floppy-disk drive about two years ago, she had a flash of inspiration. Computers for young children should be easy to use, the mother of two realized, and hard to break.

Riggs, unlike most moms and dads, was able to act on her insight. The IBM worker went on to invent the Young Explorer, a Windows workstation for children that combines a kid-sized desk and chair with security features such as a locked-up PC and a spill-resistant membrane keyboard.

Child-friendly computers like the Young Explorer are popping up all over. Riggs' colorful creation has become popular in day-care centers, for instance. Other companies have built computer kiosks for kids in museums, libraries, stadiums, zoos, retail outlets and video-rental stores.

Apple's popular iMac consumer computer has been transformed into a TouchStation kiosk thanks to touch-screen technology from MicroTouch of Massachusetts.

Even Burger King restaurants are attempting to lure computer-savvy children with ``virtual fun centers'' built around Macintosh hardware. A handful of Twin Cities-area Burger Kings are among the first to install the brightly colored computer-gaming stations this month.

Kid-oriented public computing may soon become ubiquitous, a local kiosk expert believes.

``Kiosks began with automatic teller machines, which are transactional in nature,'' says Craig Keefner, a programmer at the St. Paul-based Kenetic Internet-consulting firm who oversees the Kiosks.org site. Entertainment is the next wave, he predicts, partly because ``kids love to play games.''

But flashy computer stations for children needn't replace standard PC or Mac setups, at least not right away, a Twin Cities child-development expert argues.

Howard Gianera, Minnesota franchisee for the Tutor Time day-care chain, has installed more than 60 ordinary PCs for use by his young patrons on child-sized desks. Such machines are adequate for running educational software, he says, and at a fraction of the Young Explorer's $2,149 list price.

Gianera's conservative child-computing strategy places him at odds with Florida-based Tutor Time, which has urged its franchisees to buy the IBM-and-Little Tikes-branded Young Explorer. The workstations are mandatory for new Tutor Time centers but optional for existing centers.

Gianera expects to take the plunge eventually, though. He seems inclined to agree with Vicki Folds, Tutor Time vice president of education and technology, that such products represent the future of child computing.

Even parents are buying Young Explorer stations for use in their homes, Folds notes. ``I think (the product) is terrific,'' she says. ``You aren't putting children in an adult (computing) situation and telling them to grow up fast.''

Creators of the Burger King gaming station adopted a similar philosophy when assembling the eye-catching kiosk and writing its child-oriented software.

When testing a prototype at a Burnsville Burger King, for instance, they noticed young children sometimes perched precariously on chairs to get a better view. So, Wisconsin-based Frank Mayer & Associates added a sturdy, metal, step stool and curvy handrails so the little ones could play in comfort and safety.

The entertainment software, created by a Burnsville-based team, is designed to interact with cutting-edge computer hardware that includes a late-model Power Macintosh G3, a touch screen and a video camera with a video-capture board.

This sophisticated setup translates into excitement for young Burger King patrons, assuming they aren't discouraged by the dim and overly reflective screen. In addition to conventional trivia, puzzle and painting games, the kids can pose for digital snapshots and even make short movies of themselves.

New games will be installed about every four months. Internet-related features such as video pen-pal exchanges are slated for sometime next year.

For now, Florida-based Burger King faces the daunting task of convincing its franchisees to invest in the pricey kiosks (purchase and leasing options are available).

Frank Mayer & Associates has takers for its first run of 500 units, some of which will be installed abroad. But that's far short of the firm's goal to equip all 10,365 Burger Kings around the world.

Bloomington-based Nath Companies, which oversees 137 Burger Kings in Minnesota and several other states, has only committed to testing kiosks in a half-dozen Twin Cities restaurants.

Brian Anderson likes the gaming stations, though. ``They complement our big playground restaurants (and tie) into our brand message,'' says Nath's vice-president of operations. ``These days, children are naturally inclined towards computer games.''

Early feedback from customers seems promising, Anderson adds. When the prototype was pulled from the Burnsville Burger King, ``parents asked, `When is it coming back?' ''

Julio Ojeda-Zapata, who covers personal technology, can be reached at ojeda@pioneerpress.com or (651) 228-5467.

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