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Pink elephants sporting feathered caps dance the samba with astounding grace. Flying blue beetles wearing striped pajamas zip around town in jumping cars. A red polka-dotted giraffe plays chutes and ladders with a half-breed, blue-tailed moodog (for clarification, that's the head of a cow and the body of a dog). A felinesque creature with plaid fur collects the diamond-shaped pieces of a kite to win surprise gifts.
It may sound implausible, but these creatures all exist in the virtual world of innovative start-up Shidonni.com. In this browser-based Web site, any creature your child draws can suddenly come to life, play games with other animals created by friends, download music, eat its favorite home-drawn food, star in a television show, create an animated video and even write books. The possibilities are only limited by what can be conceptualized and drawn.
"The children draw it and we help them bring it to life," says Shidonni founder and CEO Ido Mazursky.
"Anything?" I ask, still doubtful.
"Anything that is appropriate for children," he replies quickly. "Using our patented technology, kids can draw the wheel of a car and it will move just like a wheel should. They can draw an apple and feed it to their animal. They can draw the world where their animal lives and they can communicate with friends."
Unlike other social networks, however, children using Shidonni can become virtual friends only with people they know in the real world. They cannot be contacted by strangers or invite random animals to play with them unless they actually know each other's user names. For that, Mazursky explains, they must exchange information in person or on the phone. In addition, every new animal is checked by a Shidonni employee before it ever enters the public sphere.
"We take security very seriously," he says, adding that Shidonni was recently awarded the Parent's Choice Gold Award in September for Internet safety. In another recent development, it partnered with the Internet Keep Safe Coalition, an organization committed to cyber safety for children. A custom version of Shidonni created for the partnership includes lesson plans and worksheets that are free for schools and provide class management tools and guidance for teachers.
Children across the world can use Shidonni in eight languages, including English, Spanish, French, Russian and Hebrew, and there are oodles of games to choose from, including many that have an educational slant. The basic level is free and upgrades to the premium version cost $5.99 a month.
As an educational tool, Shidonni gives children a fun way to bridge the gap between drawing and typing. By focusing on imagination and creativity, it supports early childhood development and also promotes 21st century computer literacy skills in an engaging platform. Kids can just draw or they can write newspaper articles about their pet's activities or even create books with dialogue between their pet and their friends' pets. It's simple to use and the user interface is clean, so drawing virtual pets and watching them magically come to life is easy.
First conceptualized several years ago by cofounder and CTO Nachshon Peles, Mazursky heard the idea and instantly liked it enough to help raise $1.5 million from angel investors. As the former CEO of Toys'R'Us in Israel, he also brought many years of experience from the bricks-and-mortar toy industry and knowledge of early childhood education. Since its launch in January, Shidonni now has more than 100,000 active children using the site and a vast array of features and activities.
"It's an interactive world that focuses on creativity and education," says Mazursky. "You can't believe the things that children are drawing. It's unbelievable."
But I don't have to imagine for long. An entire wing of the Shidonni office in Rehovot's Science Park was recently dedicated to the company's latest endeavor: constructing plush, colorful dolls from the drawings submitted by children. These custom-made, hand-sewn dolls are the exact 38-cm. replica of whatever animal - be it real or imaginary - your child can draw. A purple strawberry with eyeglasses and long yellow hair is just getting the finishing touches as we tour the premises. Next door, an entire room of materials displays giant felt rolls from floor to ceiling.
"This is a brand-new feature," Mazursky says. "You're the first one to see the dolls. We're launching them next week."
For $79.99, users can send in the drawing of their animal and receive a plush one-of-a-kind replica in the mail. As a bonus for ordering, Shidonni is throwing in two free months of premium subscription to the Web site. It also includes a birth certificate and a letter stating its name and the name of its designer.
The unique thing about this doll is that it represents the fusion of old and new. "This is 21st-century hi-tech with 18th-century doll-making," says Mazursky. "This is no Winnie-the-Pooh. This is a doll you keep for your children and grandchildren because you designed it."
Not yet profitable, he says the company hopes to continue expanding its user base through educational game portals and strategic partnerships, including computer desktop games and schools.
"There are no cultural issues to overcome with this Web site and the technology infrastructure is scalable," says Mazursky. "It's not about the right or wrong way to draw something. It's about encouraging children to use their imaginations while they learn new things."