Once upon a time, toys coming to life was just a Disney•Pixar fantasy, but with apps like the new Untamed ARena and the newly announced My Smooshy Mushy, kids can interact with virtual versions of their favorite toys and characters like never before.
These apps are just two examples of this season’s many toys that feature augmented reality (AR) experiences that enhance the real world with digital components.
According to Robin Raskin, a tech expert and founder of Living in Digital Times, the basics of AR date back more than a decade, when games like Guitar Hero introduced the idea that physical actions could interact with on-screen technology. AR truly became mainstream two summers ago with the overnight success of Pokémon Go!, a mobile game from Niantic and the Pokémon Co. that had fans of all ages catching virtual Pokémon appearing in the world.
“It was really only the mildest of AR, but I think what Pokémon Go! did was get the whole family involved,” Raskin said. “When you got away from sitting at your desk and out into the streets and got to see AR, I think it got really compelling. And then the fact that the whole family could play together made it a shared experience, which sparked everybody’s imagination.”
Raskin partially attributes the success of the app, which was not the first of its kind, to the use of licensed characters. “Whether we like it or not, our kids gravitate toward licensed characters that they know,” she says.
According to Raskin, despite its popularity, Pokémon Go! isn’t the perfect example of AR for kids. On a basic level, she believes AR has very few disadvantages for children. “You’re combining something they know really well, which is the physical, with something they know really well, which is the digital,” she says. “And that combination, if it’s done well, makes for a great play experience.”
The major obstacle at this point, however, is the dexterity demanded to use many of the AR toy offerings. Kids’ small hands, for example, aren’t equipped to hold a tablet in one hand and a book in the other, or hold an iPhone with one hand for an extended time. The most successful AR products minimally disrupt traditional play, a concept inventors are still perfecting.
Virtual reality (VR), or full immersion in a digital world, has also started to appear in some toys and games. Although the technology isn’t as readily available, Raskin suggests introducing kids to VR slowly and with age-appropriate content to avoid scaring or confusing them, such as cardboard viewfinders or Merge VR’s kid-friendly goggles.
Looking forward, it seems like the AR and VR trends in play aren’t going anywhere. “I don’t think every toy will have AR, but I think when they have it, it will be used well,” says Raskin. She also foresees AR being used in other aspects of kids’ lives, from cooking lessons, to scannable clothes, to unboxing previews in stores.
If you’re ready to introduce your kids to the world of augmented or virtual reality, check out some of our top picks for toys with AR or VR components:
The new Untamed ARena app from WowWee allows kids to scan their Untamed by Fingerlings T. rex and Raptor figures, creating a digital version of the dino that wanders the real world. Kids can battle other Untamed trainers in real time, work toward becoming a master creature tamer, and care for their Untamed creatures in the app. For screen-free time, the physical Untamed toys move their heads and eyes, react to touch, and make more than 40 sounds.
MSRP: Free (app) / $14.99 (toy)
Age: 9+ (app) / 5+ (toy)
The Hot Wheels Augmoto set from Mattel combines the fun of building a Hot Wheels track in the real world with an AR racing experience. Once the track is assembled, kids can race the included electric cars and level up the race using the free Hot Wheels Augmoto app. While the cars race on the physical track, the app overlays a loop of fire, oil spills, pit stops, and more. Players can collect, launch, and block missile attacks and respond to other obstacles presented on the screen as the physical cars respond.
Sited by Raskin as one of the strongest examples of AR play, the Osmo gaming system allows kids to play 12 different hands-on games (each sold separately). The drawings, car races, pentagram patterns, and more that kids create are transferred onto the screen and animated. With an included stand for the your mobile device, kids are able to use both hands for play.
MSRP: $19-29 (base), $19-59 per game
Age: 4-11 (varies by game)
This Kano kit includes a buildable wand that will interact with kids’ computers, tablets, or phones. The Kano app provides more than 70 Harry Potter-themed challenges that teach kids the basics of coding. Code correctly, and the wand interacts with the virtual world by casting spells, picking up objects, and more.
Kids can become Iron Man with this Avengers-inspired mask from Hasbro. Place a compatible device inside the mask’s AR goggles, put AR markers around the play area, and Iron Man’s world comes to life. Using the Hero Vision app, villains from the Marvel universe will appear virtually in the play area, and kids can fight and blast them through the eyes of Iron Man.
After building this 800-piece K’NEX coaster with a Ferris wheel lift, kids can use the included cardboard VR viewer to virtually ride the coaster they’ve just created. The K’NEX Ride It app lets kids choose from nine different coasters to “ride.”
Available November 16, 2019, the new Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu! and Let’s Go Eevee! games from Nintendo expand on the premise of Pokémon Go! by giving kids a physical Pokéball joy-con they can use to capture Pokémon in the game. Compatible with the Pokémon Go app and the Nintendo Switch, the Pokéball controller lights up, vibrates, and makes noises to indicate when kids have captured a virtual Pokémon.
MSRP: $99.99 (Pokéball Plus combo)
Age: Rated E for everyone
There aren’t many details yet about the My Smooshy Mushy app, which is set to launch in mid-October. The game will feature the original Smooshy Mushy characters in digital form, and kids will be able to interact with, collect, and nurture Smooshys and Besties.
MSRP: Free (app)