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TechMama: Are Augmented Reality Toys Bad for Your Kids?

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.