The Future of Play: Merging Virtual and Real Worlds
by Ted Mininni – President/Creative Director, Design Force, Inc.
The landscape of play is changing. 2012 is only two months old, yet CES in early January and Toy Fair in February have already revealed new technologies that combine the virtual and real worlds for a completely new play experience. Since the line seems to be blurring betweeen consumer electronics and toys, and both industries are experiencing considerable growth from this new product category, I decided to address the “future of play” in this month’s issue of BOLT!. Feel free to chime in... your thoughts are always welcome.
Toys. Games. Sports. TV stars. Movie properties. It’s all about entertainment and public consumption. Entertainment brands create stars. And it’s no wonder superstars grow their brand presence via licensing agreements and consumer products.
Over the past few decades, the Internet has created a terrific communication platform to extend favorite entertainment brands. Web sites are developed to share updated news and photos; encourage comments, conversation and the use of share buttons; all designed to build world-wide communities around the brand. It’s no accident that sites like nfl.com and nick.com enjoy high levels of engagement and continue to build fan bases. The constant addition of new material and formats that engage make these sites anything but static. That’s important and key.
In the case of kids, it’s easy to engage them with colorful web sites that extend their enjoyment with their favorite toy and entertainment brands. Games, contests and ways to share play with like-minded kids have always been easily adopted. Thumbs-ups from peers and friends establish specific brands and drive them to dominance. Getting and retaining kids’ attention – and loyalty – when they’re clearly bombarded by a staggering amount of stimuli and new pop cult trends is the trick.
Hot properties like Hasbro’s Transformers, recent beneficiary of a third blockbuster film, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, have launched sites like hasbro.com/transformers, neatly offering videos, high-powered games, characters and toys on one platform to engage in an exciting manner. Note: there’s a spot for parents on the site, too. This is smart of Hasbro, since kids’ parents have fond memories of Transformers. Leveraging that while assisting them in finding age-specific toys for their own kids helps reinforce the brand and its strengths.
For young girls, Mattel’s Barbie continues to be a contemporary fashionista. Barbie.com features puzzles, games, fun activities, every girl’s dream “closet” packed with fashions and of course, shopping, enthralling the current generation of fans. Not to mention excursions into Barbie’s virtual world. This, too, is a site that parents can endorse.
The worlds of real and virtual play are literally almost seamless now, as consumers interact with their favorite brands on multiple platforms. Of course, they are evolving as technology progresses. Largely thanks to cell phones and iPads, portability has enabled people to take their entertainment everywhere they go and tap into it 24/7, 365.
So why not launch licensed consumer products that tap into this trend? Hasbro Transformers is doing just that. With the upcoming release of Transformers: Dark of the Moon on DVD/Blu-ray, a collector’s line of branded computer and gaming accessories are being launched. Hard core fans will want the gaming mouse, mouse pad and laptop case. Naturally, these products feature spectacularly executed, robotic design representations of Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, Megatron and Shockwave. Smart thinking.
Is it any wonder that kids, the fastest of early adaptors, take to new apps like ducks to water? Smart marketers recognize the way to extend their brands, going forward, includes new media. The thing is: a brand may have zillions fans, but how to continue to engage them with the proper content? How to use new platforms optimally?
How about a new generation of apps that merge digital and physical play? Unsurprisingly, Disney and Spin Master see great potential here, launching new toys so that kids can use an iPad as a virtual play platform. Disney-Pixar’s Cars 2 is the first property available in this format. When consumers download a free Cars 2 Appmates app from the iTunes store, a screen specific to the character becomes a play mat. Miniature Cars 2 vehicles are loaded with sensors on each toy making cable and Bluetooth connections unnecessary. Talk about not only bringing a virtual brand to reality; Disney recognizes that today’s kids are playing in a whole new way. It makes sense to bring the brand into a whole new dimension. One that brings digital and physical worlds together.
Lego gets it, too. The company’s Life of George iPhone app brings Lego to kids in a virtual world. George, a software engineer by day and explorer by night, loves computer game challenges. He’s a new virtual friend for kids giving a “human” face to Lego’s latest game.
A free iPhone app enables users to download a set of bricks and a play mat that looks like a green screen. The game features 12 levels. Players build models and photograph them with an iPhone or iPod Touch. The app then scores the level of accuracy and speed of the player. Players can use a mode called “my life” and create their own designs, as well. Another cool aspect of Lego’s well-thought-out app: unique designs can be saved in a virtual scrapbook. Games can be played by one child or two kids in competition. While “real” Lego bricks aren’t used in this game format, plenty of Lego contests do; this game stretches the boundaries of play to a whole new level.
Powerful brands continue to offer content-rich web sites, real toys and licensed, desirable consumer products. But apps like these extend the brands even further because they intersect with new platforms that consumers, including kids, use for communication, information gathering, and yes, play. The more kids can interact with brands on multiple platforms, the more likely they are to retain their loyalty to those brands. The future of play? It seems as though it’s already here.