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Disney on Tuesday unveiled "Playmation," a whole new type of high-tech toy that brings motion-sensor technology, Bluetooth and cloud connectivity to wearable devices and traditional action figures.
Despite its cutting-edge nature, Playmation is in certain ways an antivideo game: It's designed to get kids up and running around. And while kids can use a smartphone or tablet app to learn their "mission," once you start playing, you have to step away from any screen.
The first product line in the Playmation brand is based on Marvel's Avengers, starting with a $120 pack of five connected toys built around Iron Man. The centerpiece is a wearable that slips onto your arm, and is designed to shoot and block shots like Iron man's "Repulsor Gear."
The button you press to shoot makes the glove vibrate. If you flip your wrist up, the light in your palm shoots as well. Hold your arm up in front of you to block, it'll vibrate. Lights will change colors if you're "shot."
The game also features a triangle-shaped plastic disk that delivers instructions to players—like how to control the gear, and where to run and jump with other players to execute a mission—in the voice of Iron Man's assistant JARVIS. Those disks can also shoot at players, and encourage them to run and duck to avoid being in the line of fire.
There are also two action figures—Captain America and villain Iron Skull—which are attached to the disks. When affixed, they light up, shake when shot at, and pop off and fall on the floor if shot repeatedly.
An app—AvengersNet—allows you to register your gear to see progress, get access to new missions, and learn about what JARVIS is instructing you to do—like rescue another Avenger in a jungle. But before you turn on the wearable device—or sync yours with a friend's, if you're playing with someone else—you must turn off the app.
The first product line is based on Avengers, but Disney said others are in development. A system built around Star Wars—imagine an interactive light saber—is scheduled for 2016, and a Frozen system is slated to launch in 2017. Each game will use different technologies, and different wearables, to work with the different ways kids play with favorite stories and characters, Disney said.
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I had a chance to demo the toy—and watch some kids playing with it—the day ahead of Disney's big unveil. While it's incredibly tough to describe, I was impressed by how different, and high-tech it feels compared to other toys that talk and shoot, and how it encourages you to keep moving.
"There's nothing else out there like this. It feels like it has elements of a video game—but it pushes kids to return to classic play and run around," said Jim Silver, CEO and editor-in-chief of toy review site TTPM, who was briefed by Disney on the product and spent and 1½ hours playing with it.
"This is as close as kids can get to being Iron Man—to act out being the character and try to save the day," he said.
So how much will this be worth to Disney? Silver said the so-called "action aisle"—toys such as light sabers and giant Hulk hands—is a roughly $2.5-billion-a-year business. While that's small relative to the $17 billion video game business, Silver said Playmation could have an impact on a whole category of toys, and grow it much larger than that.
Silver projects that the Avengers line of connected toys, once fully launched, could be a $500 million a year business. Other features in the Avengers line include Hulk hands—which Disney plans to launch this fall.
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The potential for other Avengers characters is clear—a shield for Captain America, a bow and arrow for Hawkeye. Once Disney rolls this out to the Star Wars and Frozen franchises, it could easily become a $1 billion annual business for Disney, Silver said.
Three years ago Disney introduced its "Infinity" video game, which quickly grew into a $1 billion annual business. "Infinity" is built on the same model as Activision's Skylanders-- kids can buy real toys to add new characters to video games. In contrast, there's nothing else out there like this, and it brings digital technology to real toys. And in an era where parents and doctors are bemoaning kids not getting enough exercise and the effect of screen time, this is designed to get them active.