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If you’ve got a small child at home, you’ve likely discovered what seems to be an instinctual response to computers among the young: Kids love to bang on keyboards. Heck, the first time I held my six-month-old while sitting at my desk, she typed a few nonsensical lines and then printed out the document! (I’m not joking—evidently Command-P is easily bashed.)

Cute though this tendency can be, there are practical concerns; namely, that the novel you’ve been working on doesn’t get erased or the graphics file you’ve painstakingly laid out doesn’t get jumbled by your little one’s little digits. So it would be nice to be able to protect your progress from your progeny. (Or even just prevent unwanted logouts or shutdowns.) Even more ambitious, perhaps you’d like your computer to respond to your child in a more engrossing manner.

A fun solution to both concerns was recently suggested to me by an old friend and co-worker from the Educational Technology Unit of UCLA’s GSE&IS: Laura Dickey’s AlphaBaby 1.51 (   ; payment requested). In short, AlphaBaby make it safe (for your files) and fun (for your baby) to bang away. (Safe from a software standpoint, that is; depending on your baby’s physical development, your keyboard may not fare so well. This is where that beat-up keyboard in the basement comes in handy.)

When you launch AlphaBaby, it takes over your Mac’s screen and replaces it—Desktop, menu bar, Dock, and all—with a clean white background. As your child presses keys on the keyboard, large, colorful letters and shapes appear on the screen, and sounds are played to go with them. (By default, pressing letters and numbers results in those letters and numbers appearing on screen; pressing other keys or the mouse button results in random shapes.) Just as important, AlphaBaby locks the screen so that your baby or toddler can’t accidentally (or purposefully) exit AlphaBaby; you have to press the keyboard shortcut Control+Option+Command+Q, or quickly type q-u-i-t, to quit. In my testing, the only keys AlphaBaby didn’t take over were Eject, Volume Up/Down, and Brightness Up/Down; hopefully a future version can block these as an option (especially considering that kids love to play with shiny objects—like, say, a newly-ejected CD or DVD).

AlphaBaby screenshot

AlphaBaby offers a number of useful options for customizing its onscreen display and actions, accessible by pressing Control+Option+Command+P to bring up the preferences dialog. You can choose between a number of color palettes, including an Infant set that includes just black, white, and red. You can also determine how often—after how many items appear—the screen should be wiped clean. (The default is 30; you can also manually clear the screen at any time via a keyboard shortcut.) You can choose your preferred font and font size and whether to display capital letters or mixed caps. There’s also a Mode setting that lets you decide how AlphaBaby responds to key-presses: the slightly-misnamed Single Letter mode displays only a single item (letter or shape) at a time, dead-center on your screen; Alphabet mode displays the letters of the alphabet and the numbers 0 through 9, one at a time and in order, regardless of which keys are pressed; and Typing mode displays letters and numbers (non-alphanumeric keys function as a Space bar) in a fashion similar to a word processor—starting in the upper-left and continuing across the screen in lines.

When typing non-alphanumeric keys, AlphaBaby uses its own images by default—mostly simple geometric shapes. However, you can instead use your own folder of images or even an iPhoto album via AlphaBaby’s preferences. (However, I found that once I used an iPhoto album, turning the feature off didn’t remove my photos from the “pool” of images.) You can also determine the ratio between how often AlphaBaby’s shapes and your own images appear, and you can have AlphaBaby assign each of your images its own key.

Whenever an image appears on the screen, AlphaBaby plays a random sound from OS X’s default sound folders (/System/Library/Sounds, /Library/Sounds, or ~/Library/Sounds). You can also choose a different folder of sounds (in AIFF format) anywhere on your hard drive, or you can have AlphaBaby instead speak the names of letters, shapes, and images, as well as speak the color of each shape (for example, blue triangle ) using OS X’s built-in text-to-speech technology. A neat feature is that if you have a folder of images and a folder of sounds, you can “match up” sounds with images by naming them similarly (for example, daddy.jpg and daddy.aiff ).

If your child is a bit older and can use a mouse or trackpad, AlphaBaby can draw objects as the mouse cursor is dragged across the screen. You choose the object (stars, lines, squares, circles, ducks, or trucks), the color (fixed, random, or rainbow), and the thickness/size of the “line.” You can also remove the restriction requiring the mouse button to be pressed, so a younger child can draw by simply moving the mouse.

Finally—and this is one of my favorite features—AlphaBaby includes a Mac OS X screen saver module. Drop this plug-in into /Library/Screen Savers or ~/Library/Screen Savers, and AlphaBaby becomes available as a Mac OS X screen saver, configurable via the Desktop & Screen Saver pane of System Preferences. The screen saver version behaves similarly to the application version and offers a similar set of preferences via the standard Options button in System Preferences. (You can have different preferences for the screen saver version than you have for the application itself.) However, there are a few differences between the screen saver and the application. For one, the screen saver uses a black background instead of white. And unlike the application version, after a period of inactivity the screen saver will automatically draw a new shape or character on the screen—with no sound played—each second. In other words, it works like a real screen saver. (Once you start pressing buttons, it works normally.) Third, when using the screen saver version, the only way to exit the screen saver is to type q-u-i-t; if you’ve enabled a screen saver password, you need to type q-u-i-t first, then you’ll see OS X’s password dialog. Finally, the screen saver doesn’t lock out quite as many keys as the application, which makes it a bit less effective. Still, the screen saver module is a great way to ensure that your toddler doesn’t destroy the next great American novel while you’re grabbing a cup of coffee.

Now, I’m no childhood development expert, so I don’t claim that AlphaBaby will help your baby learn new skills (although I’d bet that some of the AlphaBaby’s modes can at least help your child learn the alphabet). And I’m personally not one to advocate kids spending a lot of time on a computer at a very young age. But I know that sometimes my daughter loves to sit and bang on a keyboard, and AlphaBaby makes it more fun for her—and less worrisome for me.

AlphaBaby 1.51 works with Mac OS X 10.3 (Panther) and later and is a Universal Binary.

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