Augmented Reality Toys for iPhone and iPad: A Work in Progress

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Can traditional toy makers capitalize on the rise of smartphones and tablets? Wowwee Toys thinks it can. Next week, the company behind Paper Jamz and Lite Sprites is releasing its first toys in the AppGear line, which combine physical toys with companion smartphone and tablet apps.

I’ve written about Wowwee’s AppGear line before, back in January when the toys were just prototypes. In theory, they’re impressive, often going farther than rival products in fusing the real world with the world of apps. Still, they’re a work in progress, as proven by the first couple of toys I received in the mail.

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My favorite of the two was a product called ZombieBurbz. Inside the box is a small plastic zombie figurine, which you hold between two fingers on top of an iPad. This zombie unlocks a set of levels in the free ZombieBurbz iPad app, and it also acts as your avatar. While aiming the zombie with one hand, you tap on-screen buttons with the other hand to fend off an onslaught of mean humans.

Although the game itself is far too easy, the figurine is a clever use of augmented reality, because you can twist it or move it to get a layer of control not possible with the touch screen alone. The game’s sole boss battle, in which you dodge projectiles by sliding the zombie around while firing your own counter-attacks, is a stroke of app-toy hybrid brilliance.

I wish I could say the same for the second product, Foam Fighters. Here, the two palm-sized foam airplanes included in the box are just gimmicks. You scan them into the game to unlock some missions, and then you attach them onto an iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad with a bendable rod and suction cup. The device’s camera sees the plane, and the image becomes superimposed onto the game–a third-person dogfight where you tilt the device to control your fighter. Unlike with ZombieBurbz’s figurine, the airplanes of Foam Fighters are merely cosmetic; the game functions just fine without them.

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But there’s a bigger problem with both of these products: They’re expensive for what you get. The apps are free, but each toy bundle costs $10, and for that you don’t even get the full game. To get all the levels in ZombieBurbz, for instance, you must buy three additional boxes of figurines. Foam Fighters will have additional airplanes for sale as well. With each package providing about an hour of play, parents will be back in the App Store before long, looking for other ways to keep their kids entertained.

Wowwee is onto something here. The fusion of traditional toys with phones and tablets presents some amazing possibilities, and I look forward to the other products the company is working on. But should your local toy store ever get an augmented reality section, be aware that not all toys are created equal.

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