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The Future of Toys in the Digital Age

February 17, 2015

The Future of Toys in the Digital Age

Here at Ludomade, we’ve been lucky enough to work with toy juggernauts such as Disney, Lego and Bandai America, and have been exposed to some of the amazing innovations happening in the toy industry today.

However, kids today are moving away from physical toys and becoming more engrossed in portable digital devices, as evidenced by pretty much every kid you know.

Market-research firm NPD confirms this fact, finding a one percent fall in 2013 U.S. toy sales, helped along by a six-per-cent drop in sales of action figures. However, the youth electronics category that includes kid-friendly tablets, climbed eighteen per cent. Given this, it’s no surprise to see more and more companies looking to connect physical toys, with digital applications.

So how does one predict the future of toys? First, let’s take a look at the current trends and innovations, then extrapolate forward. Some noteworthy examples include:

  • Activision’s Skylanders, Nintendo’s Amiibo and Disney Infinity (which Ludomade helped launch online) whose ‘toys-to-life’ console games allow you to play along with NFC connected toys, an industry now worth billions.

  • Mattel’s range of Apptivity mobile games, allowing you to purchase toys fitted with capacitive plastic pads beneath the figurines, that interact with your iOS device.

  • Lego’s Fusion offers an Augmented Reality (AR) experience allowing kids to use an app to interact with their bricks via their device’s camera.

  • Bandai America, who also tied their toys to a mobile device’s camera using image recognition, allows kids to extend their play on to mobile and tablet devices.

So what does the future of play look like? Well, I’m pretty sure it’s not this.

With toy sales creating a successful new form of revenue for game software giants, and with continued advances in mobile computing, incorporating the physical into the digital looks like it’s here to stay. Below I’ve highlighted some emerging technologies that look set to shape the next generation of play.

Apple was recently awarded a gesture-control patent that threatens to pull the rug out from the existing players in this space, such as Xbox and Leap Motion.

Apple Gesture

With so many kids owning portable Apple devices, it’s not hard to imagine developers making games that require children to learn a whole new type of sign language, as they play with their phones.

If waving your hands to control something sounds too exhausting, why not just use your mind? The technology has existed for some time now, a notable example being Emotiv’s EPOC EEG headsets. This has manifested into simple toys like the mind controlled helicopter below, but the technology is still in its infancy.

As this technology develops, becoming cheaper and miniaturised, kids of the future will be controlling their action figures, cars and drones by simply wearing an EEG equipped baseball cap.

Microsoft recently revealed Windows Holographic. Don’t be fooled by the name, there are no Holograms involved. It’s a next gen AR experience that requires a headset to view digital assets in the real world.

In the video below, you can see an example of a virtual castle take form in a living room. Now imagine a child using their physical toys to interact with it. Toy manufacturers can sell their physical toys and for an additional fee, you can download the virtual play extension directly to your HoloLens.

Also in the AR space, Magic Leap is a relatively new company that’s raised over half a billion dollars in funding. Based on their recently published patents, it appears they’re working on some pretty interesting wearable tech (beyond just headsets) promising to deliver some exciting innovations in this space, hopefully beyond just baby elephants.

And of course, we shouldn’t overlook the world of virtual reality, with entries such as the Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus. While still in their infancy, early game demos have been highly immersive. This technology will no doubt lead to the next generation of ‘toys-to-life’ games, where players scan in a purchased toy and play along side their virtual superhero.

But all this immersion isn’t helping our kids get off the couch. Wearables may be the bridge between passive and active play. Currently this technology is tied to adult fitness devices, but we see a future for toys that encourages kids to ‘move’. And not in a Wii Fit kind of way… kids will be motivated to play outdoors and have their physical activity gamified and rewarded on their mobile devices. That Batman utility belt just got a whole lot smarter.

Even a kids’ humble t-shirt is fair game when it comes to the future of play. A textile designer in Budapest has created interactive fabric that changes color and pattern when heated up or pressed. Playing ‘tag’ in the future will be awesome when shirts change from green to red when you’re ‘it’.

3D printing is another area of interest to watch. Right now, the hardware is cost prohibitive, but that hasn’t stopped Hasbro from dipping their toe in the water. In February 2014 they announced a partnership with 3D printing company 3D Systems to “co-develop, co-venture and deliver new immersive, creative play experiences powered by 3D printing for children and their families”. Months later, they filed a patent suggesting a 3D printing platform for Transformers.

It’s not hard to imagine a day when toy manufacturers are selling minimally-featured toys, that come with a companion app that allows you to purchase and print upgrades. Want to add a new head, weapon or vehicle to your superhero? No problem, prices start at $1.95. Download. Print. Attach.

Finally, let’s round out this imaginarium with the ultimate futuristic toy… ROBOTS! While these toys have been a staple in kid’s toy boxes since Ancient Greece, they’ve slowly grown with sophistication over time, from wind-up toys to fully articulated humanoids.

As existing technologies get cheaper to produce, we’ll start to see marvels of engineering find their way into kid’s toys, such as the Segway inspired MiP. We look forward to the day when (Google owned) Boston Dynamics, miniaturizes their Spot robot and outfits it with some AI (also Google owned). Prepare yourselves for the next generation of playthings that eat Tamagotchi’s for breakfast!

The path for the near future of toys is already set, with a clear roadmap based on existing technologies. As always, the march of progress will bring advanced computing power and engineering at miniature sizes, allowing us to combine and expand upon existing ideas and reach an ever growing generation of connected kids.

As for the distant future? Who knows? Perhaps it’ll be transforming the need for a physical presence in social play spaces; think kids playing hide and seek on a Holodeck, with friends and classmates across the globe. Truly universal play.

a Ludomade article

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