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.
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.