'Tis the season to be jolly. Well, almost. And that means kids are starting to write their Christmas lists and sending them to Santa in the hope of something they truly want alongside the piles of socks they don't. However, this year Father Christmas might be a little baffled as many of the toys that will undoubtedly be included will be smarter than ever before.
This is the Christmas of the connected toy.
It seems that every major toy has to have an associated app, videogame or online portal these days, but does connecting toys to devices really make a difference to children?
Over the past few years we’ve tried out a plethora of, supposedly, connected toys. Many of these have felt like they were cashing in on the trend, but the following handful really stand out as doing something innovative and inventive with the technology.
The key difference to our families is whether the connected features makes a difference to how much fun and longevity a particular offers toy has in the household. And these all fit the bill.
An excellent example of a connected toy doing things right, Anki Overdrive is a car track racing game where the vehicles keep themselves on course automatically so you can change your racing line and fire virtual weapons with a smartphone controller app.
Key here is how much happens on the screen. Although the physical action and excitement is on the physical track during races, this is complemented by audio and visual cues on the app for everything that is happening.
Best of all, between races you use the app to upgrade and customise your car’s weapons and performance ready for the next race. There’s as much excitement in the app as there is in the cars.
Real FX Racing
This is an interesting contrast to Anki. The cars are connected to a controller gadget but this is not directly online. However, the experience looks very similar as you control cars around a clip together track and they also offer an assisted steering challenge.
Here though the main excitement is in the toy rather than connected technology. Players need to practice to get better at the physical driving rather than work on upgrading their cars. The vehicles here can go off course if you are not paying attention so more driving skill is required.
This skews towards an older demographic and is underlined further with the requirement to manage tire damage and pull in for pit stops. The game also throws audible oil spills and other hazards at players to keep the action on a knife edge.
Another new take on the toys-to-life crossover moves the experience much more towards the toys themselves with its wearable smart technology. The different Marvel-themed Repulser gloves and Activator targets create a fully-voiced Disney adventure.
The toys are all connected to a smartphone and tablet app (currently for iOS, although Android is also planned) that enables new missions to be loaded as well as progress to be tracked. You can play the game without the app but the level of depth available by connecting the two is a compelling combination.
A speaker in the toys tells the child what is happening and what they need to do. Movement sensors, infra-red targeting and a range of other detectors determine how they have performed.
Furby has been around for a long time. Fury Boom relaunches the cuddly companion with a range of new behaviours and a complementary app experience. Although you can use the toy without the app, connecting it to a tablet opens a range of new things to do.
The app also includes various care activities to get kids looking after their Furbies in new ways as well as progress towards hatching eggs for a virtual Tamagotchi-style animal. This then extends the physical play into a virtual space with both Furby and his virtual offspring to play with and look after.
READ: Furby Boom review
Sphero is an app controlled robot with a variety of functions. Although the initial experience is highlighted by the controller app, that allows players to steer and accelerate with the powered ball, it soon extends to a variety of different videogame-style challenges.
Sphero’s ability to both change colour as well as detect motion also leads to a wider variety of connected play. Apps that can be downloaded include a "grab the colour" challenge where players must shake Sphero when it turns a certain shade.
Additionally there are programming tools and kits available to help would-be developers try their hand at programming Sphero. This starts along the lines of programming a Big Track toy from the 90s and evolves into a fully-featured interactive programming language. There’s even a The Force Awakens version of Sphero styled after new Star Wars droid BB-8.
This is a much lower-tech approach to a connected app experience. The toy element here is a simple set of letter tiles or a pen and pencil. This is combined with a mirrored cover that fits over the top of an iPad to cast the camera’s gaze down towards the desk.
This optical connection between the player and the app is immediate and effective. A variety of light educational games get players to arrange letters in front of the tablet to match the picture on the screen.
Another Osmo app enables children to scan in pictures and then trace them on the desk while carefully matching the outline on the screen. As with most good ideas, it’s much more compelling to try than it is to explain.
This is another low tech product in the connected toy sphere. Ubooly is a soft cuddly toy that houses a smartphone in the front. By running the Ubooly app a face appears on the screen in just the right place to appear to be the soft toy’s features.
The app engages players with a variety of interactions that range from simple voice detection to complex storytelling where children are encouraged to explore the house and garden as the tale unfolds.
Ubooly works because of the quality of the content and the compelling characterisation it creates. Simple interactions build a bond between the child and connected toy. Being online also means that Ubooly content can evolve over time although it's a closed ecosystem so there is no danger of outside influences.