Ocean Beach resident Ray Blavatt is the animator on the team that won the Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE for its adult literacy learning app. Blavatt works for Learning Upgrade, which competed against more than 100 other teams in 15 countries to tie for first place in February 2019.
As co-winner, Learning Upgrade receives $2.5 million, in addition to the $100,000 it took home last summer for being named finalists. The company tied for first place with PeopleForWords, a team based out of Dallas.
The object of the Adult Literary XPRIZE is to challenge companies to design an app, which can be used on any smartphone, to teach literacy or second-language skills. The winners were chosen based on how successful students in educational settings were after using the app over several years.
Blavatt said winning the award felt like "icing on the cake" for his team's work after creating many other educational programs using music, games and lessons.
"My work with Learning Upgrade has changed my life," he told Point Loma-OB Monthly. "We've formed a team that has faced countless challenges and yet are still together and are truly an extended family. Winning the XPRIZE has brought greater responsibilities and will bring greater challenges. Our enthusiastic team has always raised the bar and will continue to meet future goals."
The core group at Learning Upgrade has stayed together for more than 20 years to create video games that use music to teach reading and math, upgrading their products through technological changes from computer CDs to online lessons and now smartphone apps. Over the years, Learning Upgrade has produced a thousand literacy and math lessons for students.
Blavatt explained what his role entails.
"As the animator, I create the look of titles that is primarily inspired by the music," he said. "I start the development through traditional storyboarding, designing characters, applying graphics and text, and creating age-appropriate styles. I work closely with the programmer in the digital animation process and apply techniques and special effects. Having the titles' timing and animation sizes right — and making sure it works on different platforms — all comes into play in developing the digital animations."
Blavatt's animation career started when his wife, Kathy, volunteered to be art director for the San Diego Mac-user magazine, MacIntouch. She talked her husband into volunteering to draw computer images for the publication. "Soon she had me working part-time at the San Diego Unified School District with her as an illustrator," he recalled. "At that point, I decided it was OK to get paid for my art."
Blavatt had already made his artistic mark in Ocean Beach with several community art projects. His cartoons are on display at local coffee houses, and he's always around to handle the tech issues during meetings of the OB Historical Society. Kathy is also a renowned author, artist and photographer.
Although the XPRIZE has brought some notoriety to OB's hometown artist and animator, Blavatt's passion remains pure. "I find that even a simple cartoon drawing on a napkin can light up a person's day. I can't help but smile when a kid sees me and screams out one of my characters' names, or an adult says they learned how to read from a title I animated.
"There is something wonderful about doing work you love that also brings some good into the world."