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Discussing the trends shaping kids, tech, and play.

The New Tech Santa Brought This Year

With this new guest blog, we're launching an effort to engage frog alumni and other leading thinkers in the field of design and innovation. Chris Heatherly worked at frog from 1997-2002 and helped create the frog Strategy Group. He is now VP of Production at Disney Online Studios. 

Christmas of 2011 saw Santa put new types of toys under the tree—toys that take advantage of the latest in mobile and other technologies to combine physical and digital play in new and interesting ways. These devices say a lot about the growing role of digital devices in kid’s lives. They also give hints about where play is going over the next several years.

The idea of tech toys is not new. Going back to the 70s with Simon and later with ventures like The Learning Company, toy companies have had a long and complicated relationship with technology. Many have sought to make toys that interact with media. In the 90s, Microsoft famously promised to revolutionize the toy industry by pouring millions of dollars into an interactive Barney that worked with PCs and VCRs, only to wind up producing one of its most famous flops. In the most recent generation of tech toys, Funkeys which used collectable toys to unlock content in a PC game had initial success only to fizzle out, while my own Clickables, a line of Internet jewelry connected to Disney's Pixie Hollow online world, never caught fire.

The sad truth is that as seductive as technology is to toy makers, most tech toys fail, often spectacularly. I will expand on the reasons why in another post. But I am much more optimistic about this season's crop of tech toys because they overcome a major weakness of prior generations. Instead of trying to put all the tech in the toy, this generation of tech toys remarkably contains very little tech. Instead, they leverage the power of mobile and console devices that have become common in many kids’ lives. Here are three that illustrate these trends. 

Skylanders—By far the most marketed tech toy of 2011, Skylanders (which was developed by Toys for Bob, Vicarious Visions, and Firma Studio) is a collectable action figure game that uses an RFID base to detect the action figure placed on it and unlock the corresponding character or content in the game. Skylanders is to some extent the successor to Funkeys, but it overcomes many of that concept’s problems. One cool twist is that the RFID allows you to “level up” your action figure and will save that character's level, coins earned , and virtual accessories in passive memory in the toy. This means that your Chop Chop that you have invested hours of play into can become more powerful and valuable than your friends’ brand new version of the same toy. If you take your toy to a friend's house, it remembers your status. 

Skylanders has some challenges it will have to overcome to have staying power—among them a steep $70 entry price and getting kids and parents past the idea of buying more toys to unlock additional content in a game they have already paid for—but the idea behind Skylanders (a physical toy with a virtual memory) is one that I expect to see adopted in a bigger way in the coming years.

Disney AppMates—AppMates was a collaboration between the Toymorrow innovation team at Disney Toys, Disney Mobile, and Spinmaster. Unlike Skylanders, we wanted to eschew cords and expensive bases and find a wireless solution that matches the mobile lifestyle of iPad and other devices it's designed to work with. The secret is a patent-pending technology that allows a toy to be uniquely identified by a capacitive touch screen. In doing so, physical toys can interact with virtual game objects on screen. You can move your physical car and it drives on the virtual road. Crash into another car and it sends that virtual car into a spin. In fact, we even have virtual add-ons to your physical toy such as wings and missiles that let you fly above Radiator Springs and blast objects in the game. AppMates erases the line between the physical and digital and makes for a seamless play experience with low tech simplicity. 

AppMates has no batteries or microchips. It is entirely powered by the capacitance of the human body. The whole notion was to use the smarts of the device wherever possible so that we let the iPad do what it does best (graphics, interactivity, and gaming), and we use toys for what they do best (physical play, collectability, and that sense of owning something tangible). The applications of this technology can go well beyond collectable cars and we've already brainstormed tons of additional concepts for the AppMates tech.

Lego Life of George—With AppMates, my colleagues and I at Disney wanted to get the most interactive experience with the least amount of technology in the toy. But Lego's new offering goes even further: There's no tech in it at all. The only thing that comes in the box are literally a bunch of Legos. By simply downloading the Life of George iOS app, the user is given a variety of time test challenges to build different Lego creations. The user then takes a picture of their creation, and using vision recognition, the app judges whether the challenge was successfully completed. Life of George is incredibly simple but also hyper addictive and a must for any true Lego fan, regardless of age. The play is really well crafted and makes good use of the iPhone’s video recording technology—something that has a lot of potential for future physical/digital play. It makes one start to think about how all the other sensors built into smart devices like the gyro and voice recorder could be used for play experiences as well.

All of these toys have one thing in common: They leverage the power of the tech already in our living rooms and our pockets. In doing so, toy makers finally have the chance break through some of the major barriers to tech toy acceptance, not the least of which is price. By using the power of devices we already have, the toy maker can deliver high touch experiences at more affordable prices than ever before, and they can begin to compete with mainstream toys instead of just being relegated to the high priced novelty market.

Chris Heatherly has spent many years looking at how kids play and how it is evolving through the use of technology. He is currently VP of Production for Disney Online Studios where he oversees creative for Disney's virtual worlds including Club Penguin and Pixie Hollow. Prior to that, he ran Disney's toy business in North America and founded both Disney Electronics and the Toymorrow group, an innovation team focused on the impact of technology on toys. He is also a frog alumni and created the frog strategy team.