It’s called the “dancing dog” syndrome and it’s been used to ridicule technology that adds nothing of substance to the equation. Just because the dog can dance, should it? Augmented Reality is the dancing dog of the 2018 holiday season. Toymakers are betting big that AR toys will resonate with kids, but beneath most of them is an empty-headed canine attempting to Cha Cha.
With some variations, augmented reality, in its current iteration, usually involves taking a mobile device with a screen and pointing it at an object or QR code in the real world. When the object is captured or scanned by the screen, new visual information is superimposed over the scene. Scanning a letter “A” might yield a floating apple, perhaps bouncing lightly or spinnable with a finger swipe. Scanning a code on a cereal box might reveal a gaggle of characters. Scanning an astronomy book, you may find the planets rotating serenely in front of your eyes.
The problem with implementing AR for kids is the serious dexterity and abstract thinking skills involved. Despite the fact that kids’ games and toys are adding augmented reality to their repertoires faster than Pikachu pops up on my street corner, we may not be creating any kids’ masterpieces here, and we may be creating confusion for young minds.
Unless you live in China, where WeChat is the dominant social media platform designed for easy QR code scanning, getting AR ready is not a walk in the park. You need to download a third party QR code reader for your mobile device. WeChat’s built-in reader is amazingly facile. In Asia, you can be running down the street, smart phone in hand, and still capture QR codes on street signs everywhere as you go. In the US, most of us will instead download a crummy QR code reader from one of the app stores and need to hone our marksmen skills (Apple's iOS 11 just added a built in QR scanner that’s reportedly pretty good).
Most of today's AR apps for kids require the child be able to hold up their screen’s device long enough for it recognize this target object. Have your kids take a test at the local supermarket (QR codes are on many packaged goods) to see if they’re up to the task. There’s a surprising amount of muscle power and hand-eye coordination involved with many incarnations of augmented reality. It’s a juggling act.
Newer iterations of kids’ games utilizing AR are getting better. Dr. Panda just unveiled Dr. Panda Plus: Home Designer. The QR scanner is built into the game so there’s no download of 3rd party apps required. And it’s built so that kids can hold up oversized, well-laminated cardboard cards with household objects on them, quickly scan, and have that object appear in a room in the on-screen playhouse. A number of games to explore and learn phonics and spelling are included, and each on-screen object is also animated. A set of dry markers comes with the set of cards so kids can flip to an outline mode and color their own household items (Careful: Kids have been known to color on the AR side, making them difficult to read). The built-in QR reader is forgiving of a small child’s ability to line up a scan. The kit of 50+ cards with pictures of household items, dry markers, and the download app activation are included in a lovely box for $40.
Another one that gets the nod for doing it right is Osmo and Mattel’s MindRacers, an AR game that combines Hot Wheels racing cars with an AR experience on the OsmoPlay platform. What they’ve done right is to absolutely suspend your belief in that moment when things go from real-world to augmented reality. You place one of the six classic Mattel Hot Wheels cars included in the set onto the launch device. As they’re launching, they magically roll down the physical launcher and wind up at the start line of an onscreen racecourse. Wow. A set of special cardboard disks give the cars additional powers to spin, go faster and take other steps that can be “played” during each race sequence. The Osmo device “reads” what’s on the card and makes it happen onscreen. Magic. Part of the secret sauce, says Pramod Sharma, the ex-Google co-founder of the company, is to make the AR version of the game appealing to girls and boys alike. Available starting at $60 and only for iPad 2 and higher.
Warren Buckleitner, Editor of the Children’s Technology Review, tells me that he has great hopes for Apple’s new ARKit—a platform for building AR apps. His favorite to date is Thomas & Friends Minis, where trains and track spring to life, offering kids an interactive building set in AR. The play is compelling, but even the new Apple OS requires a parental commitment to AR and a kid’s understanding of coloring on anything but the device screen. Parents, take heed. Here are the steps to install.
Remember, with AR your kids are not wearing headsets, cardboard, or other virtual reality gear. It’s a whole other can of worms since kids can have very strange reactions to putting on headsets and entering a world of visual immersion. One company that’s doing lot to get things right on that score is MergeVR. MergeVR combines a physical handheld object—a Cube with a rubberized headset that holds your smart phone. The Cube has AR codes that launch apps and content in endlessly creative ways. The Cube becomes a boom box stereo, a display of the solar system, or an immersive target game. Truly fascinating. But, holding a Cube and orienting it real space, while wearing a headset that puts you in virtual space is disorienting. Probably stuff any eight-year-old does better than I do.
Keep watching this space and be thankful you had just one (at least most of the time) reality to keep tabs on. Your kids will live fluidly in many.