If you ask 13-year-old Keanu Snyder what he wants for his birthday, he won’t tell you about Nerf blasters or Playstation games. He’ll tell you all about augmented reality. Maybe a new shooter game that lets you zap digital targets around the house, or an experience that makes you feel like you’re traveling the solar system like a galactic explorer.
A few years ago, Snyder was more into playing Xbox games, like NHL, which let you skate around a virtual hockey rink like an all-star athlete. Then he heard about augmented reality, where instead of watching your avatar move on the screen, you could become the avatar and recreate the world around you. “It looked so cool,” he says. “I wanted to be the first one to try it out.”
Now, Snyder acts as an AR ambassador to his friend group. Sometimes, when friends come over, they see Snyder’s Merge AR/VR goggles, which he leaves on the dresser in his bedroom. He’ll slide in his phone, show them how it works, and let them take it for a spin. “Their eyes pop,” he says. “They always ask me, ‘Where can you buy this?’”
Many companies see that reaction—the immediate “wow” factor—as proof that augmented reality is the future of play. It’s what legacy toymakers like Disney and Lego are banking on to keep their brands relevant; it’s what Toys R Us hopes will keep its stores open. At Toy Fair, which kicks off Saturday in New York City, it’s what many toymakers hope will make their products relevant in 2018 and beyond. Whether layered on top of teddy bears, board games, coloring books, or action fictions, augmented reality promises to make last year’s toys feel new again. And all it takes is a phone.
Time to Play
For a glimpse of that future, look to the world’s largest toymaker, Hasbro. The company is showing off its new Iron Man mask this weekend at Toy Fair, which uses augmented reality to stage a battle against Thanos. Slip on Iron Man’s red helmet and gauntlet, set up the three AR markers around the room, and watch Thanos and his armies surround you. The suit is Hasbro’s first foray into augmented reality, but follows the work of companies like Disney, which introduced its Star Wars Jedi Challenges AR experience last year. The consumer appeal of this stuff is obvious: In AR, you’re not playing as Iron Man. You are Iron Man.
Hasbro’s Iron Man set-up relies on a phone, placed inside of the mask, which captures the real world through the camera and overlays the digital objects from Iron Man’s world. As phone-based AR improves—especially with recent pushes from Apple, Google, and seemingly everyone else in Silicon Valley—those experiences will feel ever-more lifelike. That makes augmented reality something of a golden goose for toymakers. Take a well-designed app, pair it with a simple costume or a plastic toy, and you can create an immersive, interactive experience that kids love.
Other companies have taken note. Bring an animated fire-breathing dragon into your Lego city with the company’s AR app, built using Apple’s AR Kit. Watch (virtual) Sebastian the crab bang on some (real-life) bongos with Disney’s Dream Play. Transform a physical object like the Merge Cube into a musical instrument or a galaxy-conquering spaceship; turn a simple, plastic toy gun into a laser tag machine with Merge’s 6DoF Blaster, which uses a smartphone to create digital targets that you can blast.
“We’re big fans of VR,” says Andrew Trickett, co-founder and CFO of Merge, which makes a suite of AR and VR products for kids. “But we think AR is going to be bigger, for a lot of reasons.”
For one thing, Trickett says, augmented reality demands a lot less hardware. All of Merge’s products combine simple toys with the AR machine that’s always inside your pocket—your phone. That makes it easier to update and expand gameplay over time, and it drives down the price point significantly. Hasbro’s Iron Man toy costs $50, and the Merge Blaster, expected to go on sale this summer, will cost about $30.
Plus, unlike virtual reality or even videogames, augmented reality toys bring kids back into the real world. Kids can run around the house playing AR laser tag, or pretending to be a character from their favorite movie, rather than sitting slack-jawed in front of a screen all day. “There’s a certain satisfaction with touching something and physically manipulating it. I don’t think that’s going to go away,” says Trickett. “But those physical objects are going to become a lot more interesting.”
It’s not just games either: Already, there are augmented reality puzzles and picture books, AR apps for playing with dolls and stuffed animals. One product on the market, a $60 teddy bear called Parker, pairs with an AR app to reimagine doctor play with the bear.
The explosion of AR in kids’ products brings with it some uncomfortable questions. How will those products, which make digital objects a regular part of kids’ lives, change the way children see the world? Do augmented reality experiences that bring coloring books and action figures to life rob children of their imagination? And as AR toys and games reach increasingly younger kids, should we be worried about a generation growing up with phones strapped to their heads?
Jackie Marsh, a researcher at the University of Sheffield who studies digital literacy in children, says AR experiences can be beneficial for kids, especially when the apps help kids learn something or indulge in their own fantasy play. But research also warns that these types of games, toys, and apps can fail to engage kids meaningfully, or worse, mess with a child’s sense of “reality testing”—understanding what’s real, and what’s not. It all depends on how the AR experience is designed.
Marsh and a group of researchers in the UK spent a year studying how very young children interact with augmented reality apps. They found that some apps—like an AR app that paired with a Furby, letting kids “feed” it digital food and practice caretaking—promoted more creative play among kids. Those experiences included more “flights of fantasy” as kids switched between playing with the physical toy, the digital experience, and their own imagination. On the other hand, apps that lacked an interactive element did not promote more creative play. “Simply bringing characters or objects to life as 3D images, whilst novel, did not lead to extended play,” says Marsh. “The apps need to be designed in such a way that they enable children to create objects and scenarios themselves, or foster play, open-ended inquiry, problem solving, and critical thinking.”
With all products designed for kids—whether toys, videogames, or augmented reality experiences—Marsh says good design comes from understanding kids’ development and working to promote their engagement with the world, rather than neuter it.
In that sense, putting on an Iron Man helmet that brings to life Thanos’s armies isn’t so different from putting on an Iron Man helmet without the AR. The technology isn’t really the point. It’s about dressing up in a costume, running around the house, and pretending to save the world.