App developers look to combine traditional toys and technology
Digital technology may be constantly evolving, but app developers are looking to the past for inspiration, writes Elaine Yau
Soft toys such as teddy bears are some of the most basic playthings around. But as tablet computers become commonplace in nurseries, even stuffed animals are getting the digital treatment.
TuTu, a stuffed pink rabbit, is a recent example. Modelled on Tamagotchi, the virtual pet simulation game from Japan that became a hit in the late 90s, TuTu is powered by a digital core and also needs to be looked after. Owners download an app from the iTunes store that allows them to "feed" the rabbit with touch-enabled accessories including fruit and cartons of milk. Once it's satisfied, TuTu will tell stories and play games with the user through the iPhone.
It is designed for children aged from two to six and, like the Tamagotchi, aims to nurture their sense of responsibility.
The brainchild of Jason Warren, founder of Taiwan and Hong Kong-based children's entertainment start-up Roam & Wander, the pink rabbit was one of the highlights at last month's Hong Kong Toys & Games Fair.
Taiwan-based Warren sees TuTu as a way of combining real-world physicality with digital interaction for the current generation of so-called touch screen kids.
A veteran in software and hardware development, Warren believes that "in the very near future, every successful toy in the mass market will probably be related to apps somehow. This is just the beginning."
But while apps revolutionise the toy industry, he says, traditional toy elements must be retained to ensure that children do not get so carried away by mobile technology that they lose real-world skills.
Having created more than 40 apps, he has observed how quickly youngsters take to tablets and smartphones, as do their mums and dads.
"Parents see them as magical child-quieting devices. When the kids are bored, you give it to them and they have lots of fun. But the device is so engaging and interesting that the child gets sucked in and sits for hours tapping at the screen," says Warren, who has two young children.
"Lots of parents, even people like me who make apps, don't feel comfortable with our kids playing alone. My idea was to use the power of an app as an ingredient for a toy."
But as TuTu comes in the form of a pink fluffy toy, it presents a more engaging and tactile way for youngsters to interact with digital devices. "Kids can still have fun with physical toy elements on a practical level."
TuTu is a character from a video game with a number of stories that Warren's company made for the iPad last year. "One is that TuTu is a rabbit from the moon. If she is happy, the iPhone TuTu will tell you the whole story about how she comes down to earth, what she's doing on earth and how you can help her," he says.
"The stories and games are constantly updated on the app store. But most of our research development and investment are in the plastic toys for feeding. [Anybody can make] an app-based fluffy toy. To make the plastic things that work with it is challenging."
Christopher Byrne, content director of US toy e-zine Time to Play, believes traditional toy elements will never disappear no matter how advanced technology gets.
"That traditional toys are fading is a myth," Byrne says. "Although there are lots of tablets out there, you still see plenty of traditional toys like Crayola. Just look at how well Lego has done in the past couple of years."
Another example is Rainbow Loom, a plastic toy loom used to weave colourful rubber bands into bracelets and other items.
"Kids are putting down their apps to play with Rainbow Loom, one of the biggest hits of last year. Kids are using this basic toy to create a whole community."
YouTube already features some 400,000 videos of children showing how to make different patterns.
"We have a combination of very low-tech and YouTube. Kids are sharing and creating a virtual community that is really global. This is classic basic play that coexists with [technology]," Byrne says.
APPS1010 is another developer that has combined traditional and hi-tech elements to make modern toys.
Its flagship product - AR Storybook - is an app that also has a physical model with elements of augmented reality.
After a child builds a model of, say, the nine planets of the solar system, he places it in front of a smartphone or tablet. Responding to the theme of the model, the app will display large 3-D images of related objects that might be observed in space, like spaceships. Text bubbles and diagrams about the planets will pop up to provide information about astronomy.
The company's chief executive, Wilson Chiu Wai-ho, says the app adds value to traditional toys.
"In the past, a child might construct a Lego model and be done with it. With our app, they can do much more afterwards while also getting the pleasure of physically building something from scratch all by themselves."
Toys going more hi-tech is an inevitable trend, says industry veteran Yeung Chi-kong, who chairs the toys advisory panel in the Hong Kong Trade Development Council.
But adding electronic elements to toys is nothing new, he adds. "Toy makers have been incorporating electronic technology into their products - to make them glow and make sounds - for a long time. The key for toy makers' survival is to keep abreast of the times and add new elements to their design."
Byrne says that like traditional toys, modern toy makers have to create a narrative to strike a chord with children.
"There's an increasing importance of narrative in play," he says. "When Ruth Handler introduced Barbie in 1959, she was adamant that Barbie had no story because she wanted every girl to create their own stories for Barbie. Today stories and narratives are important for every kid. Like the film Despicable Me with the Minions. That narrative is the way to kick-start a relationship with kids."