It annoys me that the magical black box on the table occasionally can’t track my hands.
My three-year-old doesn’t seem to mind at all now. He laughs so hard he can barely breathe as he keeps sucking up dinosaurs that his grandma lays on the table from 200 miles away.
I suppose none of this really makes sense from context, so let’s rewind a little.
Take a touchscreen and stand it up on your own. Give him a projector that can shoot pictures on the table in front of it and two cameras – one to record the video of the person in front of it and another aimed at the table to see where your hands are, and to project this image behaves like a touchscreen. That is the glow.
The Glow allows kids * to play, read and video chat with a strictly curated list of family and friends remotely. The screen above always shows the conversation partner. What you see projected on the table, grandma – or whoever – sees it on her tablet. When Grandma turns the page in her book, the page at the end of the child will turn too. When one side draws, the other sees it too.
(* “3 and up” suggests Amazon, but in its current form I would probably limit it to 3-8.)
It’s built around Amazon Kids +, a premium subscription service (separate from Prime) full of children’s books, games, films, and TV shows. Only the books and a handful of games work with the Glow; Video content is not showing up on the Glow which is probably the right call or my kid would only ask Blippi 100% of the time. Kids + is free for one year with the purchase of a Glow. After that, it costs $ 3 (or $ 5 if you don’t have Amazon Prime) per month.
The book selection seems to be good especially for a younger audience. The games are all simple multiplayer-like things like memory matching, chess, a pong-style arcade game, and a drawing app that takes me back to the days when I sat at my father’s computer for hours drawing Child Pix. Except that this time it’s projected onto a table and my child and his grandma are cooperating across the state. She places a dinosaur sticker on the screen; he uses the vacuum (erase) tool to devour it. They both laugh. Rinse and repeat about a million times.
Anyone a child can call must be explicitly whitelisted from their parent’s account and must have an Amazon account. It can take a while to set up depending on how skilled the other person is – but once everything is configured you don’t need to do it again. I like this whitelisting system because it means my child is unlikely to accidentally talk to a stranger.
The Glow is a device very much emerged from the pandemic, dating from a time when the family – especially older family members – can feel like a tempting fate.
“But wait,” you ask. “If you just want to talk to Grandma remotely, can’t you just use FaceTime while using a reading app or something?”
Yes! Sure. And yet…
The glow has something else. My kid treats it very differently from FaceTimes or Zooms or whatever. It also feels different with me.
Something about the design gives the person you’re chatting with … presence? Maybe it’s because you can’t really move the glow during a call; Since there is no battery, it will turn off as soon as you unplug it from the wall. Maybe it’s because you’re interacting with something on the table and then looking up at someone on a separate / dedicated screen, almost at eye level. It feels less like staring at a screen and more like sitting at a table around a board game.
Anyway, it’s strangely effective. My kid usually spends about five minutes FaceTiming Grandma, showing her his toys, and then running away to do something else. When I ask if he wants to call Grandma now, he instead specifically asks her to “glow” (as a verb). He’ll be happy to sit in front of the Glow for an hour and play and read with Grandma, dammit.
Ah, right, the bugs.
The Glow is kind of weird since it’s kind of out now, but also kind of not. It’s part of Amazon’s “Day 1 Editions” program, which is really a more marketable way of saying “products you buy when they’re still in beta”. You request an “invitation”, Amazon chooses who can buy it, and the chosen ones are allowed to play with things a little earlier while Amazon is doing handicrafts. It costs $ 250 if you received it as part of the Day 1 program and costs $ 299 after that.
In such a program, mistakes come with the territory. And the glow, as it currently exists at the end of 2021, has it. Touches are relatively often not recognized (it seems particularly questionable if the child wears longer sleeves), makes a “CLONK” sound and outputs an error (for both users!) If they are confused. Books and games occasionally do not load. Sometimes it just resets randomly.
There are also some bits that are less bugs, just gross. Such as:
- For some reason, on the Glow’s screen, the caller tends to have half of their face cut off, as pictured above. I think it’s because the glow screen is portrait (taller than wide) while the calling person is generally landscape (wider than tall). In the meantime, the caller generally can’t see their own face most of the time – just the child’s and a projected view of what the child is seeing – so they don’t know it’s happening. At first I thought it was just that person who doesn’t know how to position their tablet. Then it happened to another person. Then I called my kid at the Glow from another room and my wife laughed at me for having my face cut off after maybe three minutes. Amazon should probably put in some center stage style faces to accommodate this.
- A number of books in the Amazon Kid’s library don’t look good on these screens because the words are too small to read on either side. There is a “bubble” mode that automatically tries to enlarge these words to make them easier to read; mostly it just gets in the way. Sometimes this mode just turns itself on and confuses anyone who has never seen it before.
- The overall user interface can be slow and oddly formatted.
All of these things seem to have problems that can be fixed. And I hope Amazon does! Because with a little more shine and more content over time, the Glow could be a really, really cute little device. But how much love it gets from here is unclear; We have had it in our house for weeks now and if there were stains they were … subtle.
But I also like a lot in its current form. The projected screen is beautifully bright and receives additional brightness and feel from a bright white roll mat included in the scope of delivery. I’ve never had to adjust the lighting in the room to make it work. It’s very quick to set up and take down if you don’t want it to stand around all the time – which Amazon clearly considered since the box it comes in acts as a very nice, durable storage case. If you want to be outside all the time, there is a physical shutter release that you can use to cover the camera for added privacy. I also like that Amazon promises to replace it for free if it breaks in the first two years because kids break things.
But my kid doesn’t care about that stuff either. He just wants to suck up more dinosaurs.
I want to end my reviews with one simple question: if I return this loaner review unit, would I buy it? In this case I already have. Or at least I requested an invitation to buy. Partly because I think my child would be very disappointed if they couldn’t “shine with grandma” again, and partly because I honestly just like that unique physical presence they give their grandparents when they call them.
Should you? If your child is already happy with their grandparents’ FaceTiming, maybe not. If she doesn’t care about books, drawings, and simple games, maybe not. If you’re not ready to put up with a mistake or three while Amazon figures out what this thing means to you in the long run, maybe not. But if this all sounds good, then it’s really good fun.