Dose of reality: Virtual Reality in the toy space

Robert Hutchins

By Robert Hutchins

March 16th 2016 at 10:58AM
UPDATED March 18th 2016 at 12:41PM
Dose of reality: Virtual Reality in the toy space

Virtual reality is a phrase on everyone’s lips at the moment, from the launch of the Oculus Rift headset to the introduction of Mattel’s new View Master 2.0 to the toy market. Here, Robert Hutchins explores what the leap forward in tech will mean for kids and what the technology could do for the industry

Little else seems to have captured the imagination of the public as much as virtual reality (VR) has these past few years. 

A technology that promises to propel the consumer into a new future, VR has hit the headlines and tantalised tech-heads the world over with the allure of a new frontier of exploration, quite literally. 

In fact, it was at this year’s Las Vegas CES show that the tech made the biggest splash, where no fewer than 14 companies were on hand to exhibit their latest leaps forward in the VR space in the market’s inaugural year.

Most notably, it is the Oculus Rift that has whipped up a media frenzy of late, having recently been purchased by Facebook to the tune of $2 billion, proving that when it comes to a dose of reality, the virtual kind is big business.

And if the predictions of the Consumer Technology Association are to be taken as gospel, then US revenues of VR headsets are set to increase by 440 per cent this year, handing the sector a $540 million paycheck for 2016. But then with technology powerhouses like Samsung and HTC behind it just as much as the younger Kickstarter fledglings, it’s no leap of faith to recognise that VR already has the world immersed in its journey. 

And such is the popularity of the discussion and the excitement of the tech, it’s no surprise that VR has filtered its way into the toy space.

Last year Mattel made its own steps into the until now, relatively unchartered territory with the launch of its rebooted View Master, created in collaboration with Google to bring the VR experience to the children’s market.

One year on and the potential for both virtual and augmented reality (AR) in the toy space is still exciting toymakers, with US firm Uncle Milton getting in on the action and using CES as the launch pad for its own Virtual Explorer line.

“The virtual reality category is growing quickly, and there is real potential in this market as 79 per cent of children and teens already know about the technology,” says Wendy Hill, brand activation director at Mattel.

“Our advantage is that we can create exciting learning experiences for children through VR, which is naturally appealing to parents, too. That’s the exciting thing about the toy industry, the opportunities are endless and we will continue to explore different applications.”

Harnessing mobile VR technology akin to the Samsung Gear or any number of its more adult counterparts waiting to hit the market, Mattel’s View Master brings the aesthetics of its now iconic slider kicking and screaming into the 21st century to blend augmented and virtual reality and immerse kids in a whole new system of 360-degree universes.

“It is arguably the best example of bringing VR technology to the toy space, but then again you could say that the original View Master  already achieved this when it first launched all those years ago,” states Richard Heayes, independent games creator and founder of Heayes Design.

So if View Master pioneered VR in the toy space way before it became the buzzword of today, then perhaps the trail it blazed can take credit for the strides forwards the tech is taking in the 21st century.

Take Uncle Milton’s Virtual Explorer for instance, a VR headset that takes the concept of bringing the physical world and virtual one together one step further, with hands on toys such as an Ant Farm and a VR experience to complement it.

“The evolution of tech and toys continues to open up new possibilities for how kids can play and learn through toy-based experiences,” says Ken Malouf, VP of marketing and product management for Uncle Milton.

“This line is a great example of how we can integrate technology and physical play together to create imaginative toy and learning experiences.”

But let’s not pretend that VR has had a seamless transition into the toy space, or the market place for that matter. The tech itself has a rich history of failings in the toy market.

“The toy industry is always ahead of the curve in terms of trying to tap into an experience,” continues Heayes. 

“The Nintendo Virtual Boy was one of the first VR products to hit the toy space in the 90s. It was a monstrous thing that sat on your desk and you put your whole head in it. It made people sick and it didn’t sell.”

It’s an issue that hasn’t gone unnoticed by today’s VR developers and it is one that Oculus has spent millions of dollars on ironing out. And while anticipation is high for the Oculus’ launch, the marketability of this attempt at VR is still unknown.

So will it continue to excite the toy market once it has launched or will the tech’s imperfections pose too great a hurdle? No doubt it’s a question only time and investment from developers can answer.

But for Heayes, VR presents a different kind of issue when taken to the children’s market.

“My concern is that, aside from the flaw that VR can’t yet track your own movement, VR is something users physically plug into and can be in for hours on end,” he says. 

“People worry about screen time, and this is something where you block yourself away from the rest of the world. At the moment it seems like a solitary activity, which can’t be great for kids.”

But with such a tech revolution at our fingertips, wouldn’t it seem a waste to not put it to use in toy innovation?

Luckily, VR’s reality bending cousin Augmented Reality may just be on hand to provide the answer.

Once again, AR is not a new concept, but unlike VR’s history of falling flat in the space, AR has proved its worth in the toys-to-life sector, where thanks to the likes of big names such as LEGO Dimensions, Disney Infinity and Skylanders, the category enjoyed a 39 per cent increase in 2015 to  £129 million.

While AR has so far been considered a somewhat ‘clunky’ add-on to the toy space by many, a breakthrough in this field would present untold possibilities for the evolution of children’s play.

“With the ability to detect and augment 3D objects as well as 2D images, the potential for AR has increased enormously,” Andrew Nye, MD of VR and AR developers New Moon Games, tells ToyNews.

“I am confident that AR and VR will change what the word ‘toy’ means,” he explains.  “Alongside VR enabled remote control devices and 3D printers, AR and VR won’t disconnect children from physical play, they will redefine how kids interact with the world in general.

“Giving them the power to visualise and create their own toys and create their own VR videos will unleash children’s imaginations in ways we couldn’t envision even a few years ago. The barriers are down thanks to the efforts of a couple of brave innovators, and we’d like to see more of it in the toy space.”

And just think, you were once blown away by the still image that was projected by the original Fisher-Price View Master.