Opinion | Making augmented a reality: How AR is empowering future generations of play

With brands like Pokémon and LEGO paving the way for toy manufacturers (big and small) to bring augmented reality into their products, and as the technology continues to blend hands-on play with endless digital universes, it’s small wonder why the AR toy trend has caught the imagination of so many.

Here, Martin Herdina, CEO of Wikitude, a leading and pioneering augmented reality solutions provider, explores the future of play, and how augmented reality is empowering the next generation.

This year has been triumphant for Niantic, the augmented reality developer company behind the killer app Pokémon Go. 

While the app has reached a benchmark of $1 billion in player spending and more than 600 million unique installs last year, the company just doesn’t stop. In fact, it has just announced a new partnership with Nintendo that will see the two join forces to develop mobile apps based on Niantic’s real-world AR technology, bringing Nintendo’s beloved Pikmin characters to life.

Augmented reality has served as a catalyst that propelled Japanese pocket monsters in front of the global audience. Billions have jumped on the location-based AR hunt bandwagon, browsing nearby parks with smartphones in hand, chasing Pokemons. 

Some sceptics might argue that Pokémon Go is a one-of-a-kind phenomenon, but is this true today? Within the last ten years, technology has advanced so far that every toy brand, regardless of size and budget, can replicate Pokémon Go’s success with augmented reality. 

Change is the only constant 

 By setting the relationships with AR technology right from the start, toy brands and companies invest in future-proofing their products for the new generations of players. While Pokémon was the early adopter, the toy companies and retailers worldwide can now enjoy a second adopters wave. 

Why now? Firstly, the audience is ready. New generations of toy users (also known as digital natives) are growing alongside technology. According to Ofcom, half of the ten-year-olds nowadays own their smartphone. By the time kids get ready for secondary school, the smartphone ownership doubles. For toy manufacturers, this milestone signifies a drop in interest in physical toys. 

This cohort is highly tuned to the latest trends and accustomed to having technology at their fingertips, so they expect toys to have digital elements. When used wisely, technology such as augmented reality enables physical toys to get digital twins and extensive digital narrative that the young audience will enjoy and share. 

Augmented play for all

Pokémon Go has proven that technology can enhance the play experience. Every toy category, from the board and card games to plush and outdoor toys can benefit from augmented reality. Extended narratives and digital elements help players take the fun outside, share with friends, and generate high play value. 

AR allows toy product developers to unlock new levels of experiences. Imagine a play starting with a physical toy and ending up in a digital universe where kids play along with friends, even when they are not in the same room. For toy marketers, augmented toys bring new channels to connect with their audience where kids spend time, increase engagement and playtime. 

Toys with added AR elements create a new category of play, merging IRL (in real life) play and interaction in the gaming experience that modern kids are so fond of.  As the global pandemic shut stores worldwide, leaving toy brands with almost no shelf presence, augmented reality toy experiences can serve as an easy and quick solution that sparks the young players’ interest without disrupting the company’s budget and production cycle.

Getting it right

Augmented reality proved to be a timely solution for toy brands looking to innovate their products. Good news – toy manufacturers don’t have to be digital experts. 

After a decade of building relationships with toy brands, we have worked out a successful formula that helped brands like Spin Master launch successful AR games. In a nutshell, Spin Master’s Dragamonz entered the market with 72 digital collectibles, which resulted in an estimated 450,000 AR matches with a 4.7/5 app rating. 

Wikitude’s other client, Bandai America Inc., has teamed up with Disney to add an immersive AR gameplay experience to the Mech-X4 robot. Our AR technology allowed the interactive AR battles to take place in the real world. 

 Value-centric approach

When considering augmented reality technology as an extension of the product, we advise toy companies to have several essential criteria in mind. 

First, think how AR can leverage your brand and your products. LEGO’s use of AR as a crucial component in its Hidden Side product line, without putting it on the forefront and letting technology add real value to the play experience is a way to approach it. 

Secondly, it’s crucial to understand the brand’s audience, digital habits, and ever-evolving relationships between the physical and digital worlds. While AR alone will not become a silver bullet, it can significantly boost the dwell time and reignite players’ interest. Especially for classic formats like board games, cards, and collectibles.

The third important criterion is the need to innovate proactively. Augmented reality is a highly customizable technology that allows the toy brands to test and try without breaking the budget and create innovative game logic (now when toy developers are not limited to the physical realm). Toy marketers can use AR to get more insight into the play behavior analytics and gather more valuable data to improve future offerings (without compromising kids’ privacy).

Our ultimate advice will be to partner with companies with vast experience in the field and an established ecosystem of development partners that will be ready to create unique turnkey solutions. 

Having these criteria in mind, toy brands can safely experiment and innovate their products with augmented reality, setting a foundation for a successful future of augmented toys.

Martin Herdina is a successful technology entrepreneur and augmented reality leader since 2008. For the last decade, he’s been a CEO of Wikitude, the pioneering augmented reality (AR) solutions provider.

Wikitude is the engine behind some of the most successful augmented reality solutions in the market. From Disney Mech X4 AR experience to Ellen DeGeneres’ Game of Games, the platform-agnostic technology is used in a wide variety of sectors, including toys and games.

About Robert Hutchins

Robert Hutchins is the editor of Licensing.biz and ToyNews. Hutchins has worked his way up from Staff Writer to the position of Editor across the two titles, having spent almost eight years with both ToyNews and Licensing.biz, and what now seems like a lifetime surrounded by toys. You can contact him by emailing robert.hutchins@biz-media.co.uk or calling him on 0203 143 8780 You can even follow him on Twitter @RobGHutchins if ranting is your thing...

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