TechMama: Are Augmented Reality Toys Bad for Your Kids?

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Looking back on a youth filled with board games such as Monopoly, Risk and Candy Land, I remember the introduction of electricity to my game playing with excitement and wonder. That little 9-volt battery powering the buzzer in the game Operation opened a door to a new world of play. Today, my kids are bored if their iPad games don’t hold their attention in the first five seconds and their motion-sensing video games don’t respond properly to the nuances of their baseball swing. My, how times have changed.

Augmented reality tech toys are fundamentally changing the way kids interact with their toys. I explain it to my non-geeky friends by paraphrasing lines from "Star Wars", “Augmented Reality is what gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us."  These toys use technology to capture the real physical environment around the player and convert it into interactive digital surroundings. The technology within gaming consoles enabling this real-time digital interaction include:

1. Cameras “see” the players and their physical environment: Cameras in gaming devices and controllers as well as computers, tablets and smartphones allow us to move beyond the action of watching entertainment to “interacting” with it as well. The cameras process the player’s movements, converting motion into a digital image on the screen and “augmenting” or layering the image into a game.

2. Gyroscopes and accelerometers capture motion (acceleration) and orientation (rotation):  Once only available on gaming accessories, now the accelerometers, gyroscopes and sensors featured on mobile gaming devices, tablets, smartphones and tablet PC’s offer digital controls that extend the player’s environment into the gaming experience.  

3. GPS identifies location: If your device is GPS enabled, then apps and games can incorporate location. Just imagine what an augmented reality scavenger hunt could be like when using location information from devices, finding magic coins and swords in a lifelike representation of your own back yard.

What’s next

More advanced technology using touch to get feedback, sound with more dimensions and the addition of more sensory experiences such as smell could make augmented reality toys even more realistic. If they can make an iPhone case smell like candy, just think what playing a virtual game of Candy Land could smell like.

Is it really bad for kids?

Some of my friends are concerned that all this new technology will undermine the time their kids play with “old-fashioned” toys, but I believe it’s all about balance. Interactive fun time involving a screen can coexist nicely with playing outside in fresh air with “real” friends. Families can search out new technology toys that fit with their entertainment philosophy, and parents can experience the games together with their children. These and many other new augmented reality and motion-sensing toys give my kids the ability to have experiences I could only dream of during my youth.

Another concern is the incorporation of augmented reality technology into “shooter” games, and I agree. As popular as these games might be, I’m not a big fan, and don’t look forward to violence being even more realistic.  

Feeling the Force

As a huge teenage fan of the “Star Wars” movies, I dreamed of a wardrobe and hairdo like Princess Leia while really wanting to be a Jedi knight. The new Star Wars Kinect Game brings that goal closer to reality, without all the training from Yoda. Watching my son and his friend steer their pod racers and attend the Jedi Academy with the XBox 360 Kinect translating their body movements into an enveloping experience, I see the new technology fulfilling kids’ dreams. Now, if only I could play the game with that great “hamburger buns over the ears” hairdo. Obi-Wan Kenobi would be so proud.

Guest columnist Beth Blecherman covers family technology at and @TechMama on Twitter.

Add a comment
  • Michael Says:

    Technology always seems to go through a cycle. First it's glorified as the solution to all of our problems. Then it's demonized as the root of all of our problems. Eventually, people begin to realize that it is just a tool, and it's all in how you use it. Tools are not "good" or "bad." They are tools, used by people. Accept some responsibility.

  • Kim Says:

    The technology is not problem.

    Much like the Force, play must be balanced. The problem with technology is that it has taken over every single minute of play time a child may have.
    Because it's easy, because it is a huge lure for kids (and parents) presented by very effective marketing campaigns.

    As with most issues involving kids, the key is parental involvement. It is so easy to sit our kids in front of the 46" HD screen so they can play Uncharted 3 for an hour while we cook dinner, ready their beds and bath, etc.

    Technology is a tool and like most tools, it is convenient. It is NOT a babysitter.

    There is nothing wrong with video games. There is something wrong with video gaming time not being balanced with other activities, such as outdoor sports, reading, drawing, etc.
    The balance must be ingrained by the parents, who need to be more involved with their children's development.

    Anyway, that's what I think.

  • EFK Says:

    I grew up in the 70's and 80's. Computers became a fascinating new thing, but I am very glad that I grew up in a time were computers and battery operated toys were not that common and you had to rely on your own imagination for a great deal. We built trenches, cabins, space ships, a racing track for RC cars, stunt tracks for our bikes, we took apart bikes to make new ones. In our teenage years we became occupied by computer games. It was fun but now I consider many hours as wasted, compared with the amazing things we discovered just playing with our bare hands and brains. How interesting computers have become, computers are nothing more than a mosaic of pixels and some speakers. Slot machines if you like. I am glad that many children enjoy sports and outdoor activities.

  • Playful Owl Says:

    "I believe it’s all about balance. Interactive fun time involving a screen can coexist nicely with playing outside in fresh air with “real” friends. "

    I could not agree more! Kids just need great play. That means open-ended (so their imaginations can take flight), empowering (so it is fulfilling) and fun (duh!).

    Where I take issue with many of the AR apps out there is that most fail to deliver great play. They interrupt the kid's ability to play (stop what you are doing, place this marker here and hold a phone very carefully); they spoon feed the kids imagination instead of letting it run wild; and worst of all, they often aren't much fun. The initial impression may be good, but the resulting play has no depth or engagement.

    But it is not the technology's fault. It's all in the implementation. And sheltering kids from technology makes no sense at all. It will be ever present in their lives and keeping them from it does them a disservice.

    I see technology & apps as being just as much about content as TV. In the 70's it was a "fact" that TV was bad for kids. Then Joan Ganz Cooney and some other very talented folks created Sesame Street, proving beyond a doubt that TV could be a great way to reach kids.

    We just need to stop glorifying the technology as an end to itself and focus on providing great play for kids. That's what counts.

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