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Toys are making the mobile revolution a lot more fun

By Evan Wade / January 27, 2014

Toys are making the mobile revolution a lot more fun

Mobile devices have long excelled as supplementary resources for work-related products like desktops and laptops, but just wait till you see some of the cool stuff developers are doing with toys and video games. By taking advantage of the unique hardware that tablets and smartphones offer (cameras, GPS location and so on), toy and game makers are bringing their wares into the “smart” age, and the results are downright awesome for kids and gadget heads alike.

Say hello to the second screen

Last August, we ran a piece on AirPlay and SmartGlass, two promising second-screen features designed by Apple and Microsoft to bring mobile games to the big screen. Both technologies allowed users to enhance their gaming experience with maps and other bonus content, while using smartphones or tablets instead of a traditional controller.

AirPlay and SmartGlass are alive and well, and it’s all thanks to the hardware and software our phones and tablets offer as standard features. Besides wireless connectivity like Bluetooth and NFC, mobile data devices offer creative developers a slew of hardware features like the above-mentioned cameras and GPS chips, along with accelerometers, gyroscopes, touchscreens and more.

Smarter action figures

For toy makers and game developers, all these features lead to one thing, more fun. Even without AirPlay and SmartGlass, there are a ton of digitally enhanced diversions making use of phones and tablets. Even better, insane adoption rates — a recent Pew Internet report says over half of all U.S. adults have a smartphone, and over 35% have a tablet — mean entire franchises can be built around mobile devices. Even a few years ago, that might not have been possible. Today, a toy or game maker can build a product with smart devices in mind from the very beginning.

For proof, check out the ultra-popular Skylanders franchise. While the average adult may dismiss the toys and games as another Pokemon-style money grab, the idea behind them is surprisingly novel. By making creative use of existing technologies like RFID, Activision has created something akin to a fully interactive board game, letting users (or their parents) plunk down cash for figurines they can play with in real life and the digital world.

Some versions of the game use tablets as an interactive game board — implementing the above-mentioned technologies to track where users have placed their pieces, read battle stats, etc. Other versions use mobile devices in tandem with game consoles to give users a full gaming experience enhanced with real-world toys.

Can the hobby get expensive? Sure. Is the franchise as a whole designed to steer parents toward toy stores? Absolutely. But you can’t blame a business for trying to make money, and this franchise is a creative example of how to drive revenue across all the major digital and physical channels.

Skylanders is also a textbook example of how to do it right in terms of required hardware. Sure, a kid or adult with a full digital arsenal (tablets, game consoles and so on) will undoubtedly have the best experience, but those players with just a console or tablet can still join in on the fun, making it possible for pretty much anyone to get in on a little Skylanders action. And since users can easily transfer their existing stable of monsters to a new device, there’s always time for occasional players to up their game. It may be pricey, but it takes advantage of all the ways kids use devices these days — and that makes it one of the best toys of the smartphone age, thus far.

iOS in the (toy) car

Skylanders may be the best example of a toy franchise making use of smartphones and tablets, but they are far from alone. Take the huge field of cool RC toys making use of data devices, for example. Gadgets like the Rover Spy Tank and the Desk Pets’ CarBot take remote-control toys to the next level, letting users control their gadgets without the need for another battery-chewing peripheral device.

The CarBot is particularly unique, offering a “boost” button, which lets the car go faster for a few moments, and a “fire” command, which shoots the built-in IR “gun” at another user’s vehicle. For many, nothing was cooler back in the day than remote-control cars and Laser Tag. Combining the two in a package that costs less than $30 should be enough to make any inner child squeal with glee.

Finger painting in the future

Hi-tech toys aren’t all about car crashes and monster collecting. Several offerings let users express themselves creatively by way of the second screen. Crayola’s DigiTools line is one such set of toys. Unlike standard crayons, the iPad/Android app-and-toy combo uses the touchscreen as a canvas, giving users everything from a standard drawing pad to airbrush/spray paint capabilities. While it’s obviously designed for the young’uns in a household, anyone who grew up with Mario Paint can see the draw here.

The big point behind all these toys? Gadgets are converging. While a standalone app is one great way to bring an existing brand into the world of smartphones and tablets, combinations like Skylanders are even better. Instead of selling a $300-$400 gadget with all the features the average data device packs, the toys can easily be the gateway — and a pre-existing iPad or Android tablet can provide all the serious hardware.

Beacons for every boy and girl

Another cutting-edge technology infiltrating our toy aisles is the beacon. Beacons are Bluetooth Low Energy transmitters that send signals to mobile devices anywhere from 1 inch to 200 feet away, making them ideal for any game or activity requiring location monitoring. For example, attendees of this year’s CES conference partook in a “promotional iBeacon-based scavenger hunt to explore the event and be rewarded with a special prize.”

The game was simple. Participants would download the CES Mobile App on their Apple or Android device, explore every nook and cranny of the show and receive badges for each iBeacon they encountered. The first three people to capture every badge received a grand prize, consisting of a tablet, fitness band and CES press bag, according to the official rules and regulations.

Anyone who’s ever had a childhood knows how much fun a rousing game of Hide-and-Seek can be, and thanks to beacons, kids will continue enjoying this pastime for generations to come. Whether they’re hiding beacon-equipped action figures in the sandbox or wearing sensor-stitched clothing, children will have a blast hunting down missing objects with a smartphone or tablet. Beacons will also make it easier for parents to locate their crying child’s missing teddy bear or toy car.

A new generation of toys

From toys to video games, smart devices are impacting users in ways that touch every aspect of the home entertainment experience. That’s great news for everyone involved. Companies with an existing toy or game need only find a way to include an optional device into the experience, while those looking for new ways to tap the market have any number of examples to follow as they create new products.

If Crayola can find a cool, innovative way to include tablet-based toys into their stable of products, pretty much anyone should be able to do the same. Mobile data isn’t going away. Those making an attempt to include smart devices are effectively leading the trend. Those ignoring the revolution or dismissing it as a fad run the risk of being trampled by it. No matter what your product, make sure you’re toying around with mobile devices.

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