CHAMPAIGN — When Toys R Us launched its Tabeo computer tablet for kids this month, it included three Web applications developed in Champaign.
The apps — "AlphaTots," "Operation Math" and "Swapsies" — were all developed by Champaign-based Spinlight Studio. They're among 50 apps preloaded on the Tabeo.
"AlphaTots" is one of only four apps listed on the Tabeo box. The others are "Angry Birds," "Temple Run" and "Cut The Rope."
So far, Spinlight has created eight Web apps — all designed for kids and most classified as educational — and it's preparing to release a ninth later this year.
Matt Hutton, a founder of Spinlight and one of three partners there, said he considers the apps to be "edutainment," rather than educational.
"AlphaTots," for instance, is a game for toddlers that teaches them the alphabet. "Swapsies" is a matching game for youngsters that involves careers. And "Operation Math" is a game for older children — ages 5 to 12 — that helps them learn math tables.
Other companies are showing interest in Spinlight's products. Barnes & Noble, for example, has asked the company's permission to feature "Operation Math" in TV commercials for the Nook e-reader.
The bookstore chain also has asked permission to use another Spinlight app — "Pixel and Parker" — on demonstration units that go to stores. That app is a storybook adventure about a boy looking for his missing cat.
Spinlight, a creative agency founded in 2000, entered the app arena on Feb. 7, 2011, when it introduced "Swapsies."
"TallyTots" was launched a month later, and "AlphaTots" became available that May.
Those were followed by "Yodel-Oh!," "TableTots" and "Operation Math" last year, and "Pixel and Parker" and "Operation Math: Code Squad" this year.
The early apps were introduced on Apple's iOS operating system. Much of this year has been spent making the apps operable on Android systems.
Equipping the apps for Android systems has brought a lot of business Spinlight's way, Hutton said, citing Barnes & Noble as an example.
Hutton said the length of time it takes to develop apps varies.
Only about two weeks elapsed between "Swapsies" being conceived and the app being submitted to Apple.
"Operation Math," however, took about two months to come together. It's also Spinlight's most expensive app, priced at $2.99.
Most of Spinlight's apps are priced at $1.99, with "Yodel-Oh!" the least expensive at 99 cents.
Hutton said Spinlight's experience with apps for kids has helped him identify ingredients needed for success.
"The biggest ingredient is fun," he said, adding apps need to have a sense of humor.
They also need to be "clean, quick and intuitive" for users, he said. If an app needs a manual or instructions, it's "broken."
An app also needs "polish," he said. Buyers sometimes base their purchase on an icon, three screen shots and a descriptive paragraph — so there's not much space for making a good impression.
Both Hutton and business partner Chris Phillips have children, so they have some understanding of what appeals to kids. Hutton has 8- and 10-year-old sons, while Phillips has sons who are 4 years old, 2 years old and 1 month old.
"Our kids are testers," Hutton said.
Phillips said his older son began using the iPad when he was 2, thanks to its finger-touch responsiveness.
"Kids just get the iPad," he said.
The Spinlight partners said they're pleased to see that "Operation Math" and its multiplayer sequel, "Operation Math: Code Squad," are being adopted by schools.
One teacher — a former Champaign resident who now lives in Washington state — said her students' test scores rose after using "Operation Math."
"'Operation Math' and 'Operation Math: Code Squad' are easily the two most popular math apps in my class," said Heather Hadler, who teaches third grade in Richland, Wash.
Spinlight's next product — "Geography Drive" — is expected to be released before Christmas. In that game, players "drive" across the U.S., answering questions pertaining to each of the 50 states. The game is geared to kids 5 to 12 years old.
All three partners — Hutton, Phillips and John Turner — hail from East Central Illinois.
Hutton, the creative director, was born in Danville, grew up in Oakwood and got a bachelor's degree in graphic design from Eastern Illinois University in 1998. He worked for Buerkett Marketing after college and started Spinlight in 2000.
Phillips, the design director, grew up in St. Joseph and received a bachelor's degree in graphic design from Illinois State University in 2003. He joined Spinlight immediately after college.
Turner, the senior copywriter, also grew up in St. Joseph. He received a bachelor's degree in communications from the University of Illinois in 1991. He subsequently worked for Lierman and Associates, Carle and Buerkett Marketing before joining Spinlight in 2008.
Hutton's wife, Candace, is the firm's communications and financial manager.
Matt Hutton said the type of skills Spinlight offered as a creative agency the past 12 years "apply perfectly" to app making.
He said he still hasn't gotten any sense of what the life cycle of an app is.
"So far, time is on our side. They're doing better, the longer they're in the store," he said of Spinlight's products.
Phillips said apps are the hot topic of conversation among kids.
"Instead of talking about TV and books, they're swapping apps," Phillips said.
"I don't think apps are going away," Hutton said. "We witnessed something as big as the birth of TV. I think apps are here to stay."
About Spinlight Studio
Business: Marketing agency that has gone into development of Web apps for kids in a big way the past two years.
Address: 3356 Big Pine Trail, Suite A, in the Pinehurst Commons office park in north Champaign. The company moved to those new offices this past spring from its former quarters on Staley Road in west Champaign.
Partners: Matt Hutton, Chris Phillips and John Turner.
Web apps: 'Swapsies,' 'TallyTots,' 'AlphaTots,' 'Yodel-Oh!,' 'TableTots,' 'Operation Math,' 'Pixel and Parker,' 'Operation Math: Code Squad.' A ninth app — 'Geography Drive' — is expected to be released before Christmas.
Website: http://www.spinlight.com