AR finds a home: SwapBots could be the first augmented reality toy craze

For a technology with so much promise, augmented reality hasn’t exactly got off for the best start. After initially being the sole domain of advertisers, it has slowly crept into common use through the likes of Snapchat and Pokémon Go, but has so far failed to provide the experiences to make it central to our lives.

One area with the most potential, however, is toys. AR games are now a small but steady offering in the market, and with iPads and other touchscreen devices now providing a major source of entertainment to children, there is a clear potential for fun activities that connect the digital and real worlds.

But for AR to truly take the toy market by storm, it needs to be the subject of a major toy craze, and so far no product has come close.

SwapBots, however, could be the exception. In a sea of new toy ideas it stands out for one reason: it combines physical and digital play throughout its use, rather than the AR item being immediately set down and forgotten about after being scanned.

And perhaps more importantly, it’s causing quite the buzz among the toy industry, with serious interest from some major US retailers.

Each SwapBot set comes with a three-pack of bots and a supporting video game. There are a total of nine bots to collect, each with its own character realised in AR-suitable yet gorgeous illustrations, which can be scanned on a tablet or smartphone to turn them into fully fleshed out 3D characters.

Kids can then use these to play games, explore stories and do battle with each other, with content that having tried, I can confirm is genuinely fun to play, and which comes with a no in-app purchases guarantee.

But where it gets interesting is that each bot is made up of three totem-like parts, which fit together like Duplo, meaning their heads, bodies and legs can be swapped to create a host of different configurations: 729 in total.

This keeps the physical element firmly in the toy, and gives it far greater longevity than other AR offerings.

The idea behind this style of play is that it provides a far more developmentally beneficial way of interacting with touchscreen devices – an inevitability in modern childhood – and so assuages parental concerns about the proliferation of passive screen time.

It’s also priced at a level that kids can pay for with pocket money. SwapBot’s recently launched Kickstarter is offering a three-pack for £16 – with discounts for larger numbers – and it’s likely the bots won’t cost much more when they find themselves on retailer’s shelves.

Add the collectable nature of the bots – there are three packs at present, but the range is likely to expand in time – and the highly appealing and varied character designs, and it’s easy to see SwapBots becoming a go-to for parents looking to keep their little ones engaged.

Images courtesy of SwapBots

Given the artful blending of toy and AR design, it’s perhaps no surprise that behind SwapBots is Draw & Code, a Liverpool-based mixed reality company made up mostly of parents. The company has been making waves in mixed reality technologies for some years, producing a number of commercial projects including an AR art exhibition, numerous VR installations and a host of projection-mapped buildings.

SwapBots, however, is the first commercial product Draw & Code has produced, and it sees the company turn their expertise to their own needs as parents.

“SwapBots was conceived over a few drinks after exhibiting our augmented reality prototypes in Silicon Valley,” explained John Keefe, SwapBots co-founder and director of Draw & Code. “We wanted to do something radically different to the enterprise and health uses of the tech that proliferated at the time and interactive toys seemed like the perfect fit.”

It’s also enjoyed a fantastic pool of first-generation testers, with the Draw & Code team’s children providing vital feedback during the toy’s development.

Now SwapBots is ready for commercial production, the team are trying to get it into shops with a current tour of US tech shows. In doing so, they’ve generated some serious interest from US retailers, and with a Kickstarter campaign to show interest and get the toy into people’s hands, it’s quite possible the AR toy could become widely available in shops before long.

When you think about your typical gamer, you don’t necessarily think of women over 40, but thanks to the rise of mobile gaming these are exactly the types of people being encouraged to game. We look at how Berlin-based startup Wooga is putting women at the forefront of mobile gaming

In 2013, when Berlin-based startup Wooga was just a few years old it decided to make a game called Pearl’s Peril. The game would follow the exploits of the titular Pearl as she travelled to different locations: uncovering mysteries, solving riddles and grappling with puzzles. Pearl was created to tempt women over 40 to try Wooga’s brand of episodic, puzzle-based gaming, and the company promised that players would be able to “relive the adventure of the flirty thirties with beautiful hidden object scenes and gripping storylines in Pearl’s Peril”.

Now, received wisdom tells us that while girls are happy to play video games, women are less likely to be gamers, so you don’t get too many games that are happy to say that they’re set in the ‘flirty thirties’. But the rise of mobile gaming is changing the game industry’s outlook, and attracting women aged 40 plus is now just as important as targeting young, male gamers. Wooga recognises this and released Pearl’s Peril, first for Facebook and then for mobile platforms, but they are by no means the only ones to realise the importance of women to the games industry.

Women aged 18 or older represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population than boys aged 18 or younger

According the Entertainment Software Association’s (ESA) 2016 Essential Facts about the Computer and Video Game Industry we shouldn’t be surprised by the success of a game like Pearl’s Peril. Women aged 18 or older represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population (31%) than boys aged 18 or younger (17%), and the most frequent female game player is on average 44 years old.

“I think on the Facebook platform when social games were quite big, it was quite well known that there was a new audience that were getting into gaming, which was women,” says Wooga’s PR manager, Greg Latham. “With social games it really became apparent that women were getting into [social] games quite strongly, and with Wooga being quite a big player in social gaming at the time, I think it made sense to target that audience because we had the expertise firstly and secondly the audience was there.”

The benefits of targeting female gamers

Wooga’s targeting of female audiences is anything but cynical though, and since its inception the company has been forging a bit of a reputation based on its ability to cater for women. As Sebastian Nussbaum, head of Wooga’s Adventure Studio and the man who led the team that created Pearl’s Peril, explains: “The legacy of Wooga has always been that we primarily create games for a female audience, not only but there has been a focus on it.”

But it’s not Wooga’s ability to serve the audience that is called into question. It’s the fact that it targeted the audience in the first place. Because even though the number of women playing, especially mobile, games has increased men still make up almost 60% of gamers, according to the ESA. So what made Wooga, a bourgeoning video game company, believe it could make games for an audience that had been ignored by so many others?

Images courtesy of Wooga

“What speaks against it is it’s a niche genre you could say, and then if we target only older women it’s even more niche, but the reason behind the decision was we think we are very good at delivering content for this audience, “ says Nussbaum. “If you take a look at the market when we created Pearl’s Peril there were not so many games delivering content for that audience and that’s why we went for it. I think it’s sometimes dangerous to try to reach everyone, so it was a decision where we said ok let’s rather focus on this specific audience and make it as perfect as we can.”

The success of Pearl’s Peril means the character may be back for a second outing very soon, and while Wooga can’t confirm that the new game will be a direct successor it is planning to take what it learned from the original game and create something on another level entirely. “We got a lot of feedback when the game launched from 60 year-old women who said this is the perfect game for me, so I think we did a very good job with what we had in mind,” says Nussbaum.

Is free to play the way to go?

Back when Wooga was deciding that it would primarily aim its games at women it also made another decision about its future direction. Wooga decided that it would follow the freemium model of monetisation. The idea that mobile games cost nothing, at least initially, has become almost an industry standard since then. Supporters say that it introduces gamers to titles they may not otherwise try, while critics suggest that the practice devalues content. And what does Wooga think? Well it seems to be working for the company at the moment.

People want to consume music for free, people want to consume TV for free. People want to consume games for free

“We really love that we can deliver so much content and see ourselves as a service and this only works with free to play,” says Nussbaum. “I think it’s kind of a trend that you see everywhere. People want to consume music for free, people want to consume TV for free. People want to consume games for free. Personally I would say maybe it’s not right, but that’s how it is. We are happy that we can pay our salaries and grow the company with a business model that we choose, and on the plus side we get so much good feedback from the players that really motivates us to continue [doing] what we do. We get a lot of letters, postcards and people sending us gifts. I don’t see it as critical as you could see it.”

“If you download a game and you play it for free and you don’t like it you’re not going to get angry you’re just going to delete it right? But if you love the game you’re going to stick around for four years, and I think there’s plenty of people who played Pearl’s Peril and some of our other games who have really been around for like 2, 3, 4 years and I’m pretty sure they value the work that’s gone into it,” adds Latham.