Mattel goes all in on AR for 2013

At last year's Toy Fair, Mattel was all about Apptivity. The line of figures that interact with an iPad didn't exactly revolutionize the industry. But, the company isn't giving up on the concept. In 2013 it's evolving and moving from action figures that you drag across a screen, to much more interactive augmented reality concepts. Rather than simply slapping a capacitive pad on the bottom of a toy, this next-gen version focuses first on delivering a solid analog experience, then enhances it by actually using the considerable computing power made available by the iPad. To give the new series the best chance possible at succeeding, three of the biggest brands in the Mattel stable will be first to make the jump: Barbie, Disney and Hot Wheels. So what does 2013 hold for the venerable toy maker? Head on after the break to find out.

Mattel goes all in on AR for 2013

The $45 Hot Wheels Triple Track Twister Playset is the most conservative of the upcoming offerings. It's essentially the same booster track set you've come to know and love from the tiny cars, but this July it will feature an integrated iPad stand. In the demo we were given the free downloadable Action Capture app did little more than lay graphics over the track, which included a circling shark that ate virtual cars. While the app certainly had its entertainment value, it brings surprisingly little to the table in the form of interactivity. Presumably Mattel won't let a high-profile name like Hot Wheels languish with an unimpressive app for long. We're sure with a little bit of effort, and maybe some slowed down cars, the app could be made to track the vehicles as they hurtle through loops and place animated explosions on the screen in the event of a crash (with appropriate sound effects, of course).

Update: Mattel gave us an update on plans for the app. While there will be a free download with limited interactivity (for instance, requiring kids to "touch and discover" objects in the environment, like the shark), a much more robust pay version is also in the works. The premium edition will enable video recording and will also include motion tracking features that will count laps. The company is also working on extending the features to track-less Hot Wheels play using "glyphs" on the backs of the vehicles.

Mattel goes all in on AR for 2013

The Disney Princess Ultimate Dream Castle takes things a solid step in the right direction. And for $190, when it's released in June, it better. The Magic Mirror app recognizes various parts of the rather intimidatingly large playset and triggers activities, minigames and animations. For example, focusing on Belle in her kitchen launches an activity that has kids baking a pie with the Beast-loving character, while pointing the camera at the clock on the tallest spire launches virtual fireworks that can be customized.

Mattel goes all in on AR for 2013

Those designs are much more about the toys, though. The Barbie Digital Makeover Mirror is really a $70 accessory that puts Apple's slate front and center. The pink plastic vanity actually connects to the tablet via Bluetooth and talks to an app that lets girls apply virtual lipstick, blush and eye shadow. A dedicated wand can be "dipped" in a large selection of colors for application, while a special touchpad just below the "mirror" (read: the iPad) offers extended controls. The impressive facial tracking tech that forms the heart of the AR mirror makes sure the applied graphics follow you around and even reappear if you leave the camera's line of site then return.

Obviously, there won't be too many little boys out there clamoring for their own virtual vanity when it hits shelves in August, but we can only assume this is just the start for Mattel. If the Digital Makeover Mirror is a sign of where the company is headed, then maybe it can successfully bridge the virtual and the physical. The Apptivity line seemed to just be scratching the surface of what was possible and the Hot Wheels implementation is hardly ambitious, though we see plenty of potential there. Mattel is learning through trial and error, however, while continuously updating its toys for the 21st century.

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