By Ian Sherr
Darth Maul is ready to strike.
The villainous Sith Lord — who predates Darth Vader in the “Star Wars” chronology —twists like a coiled spring, his black tunic whipping from the motion. He holds a double-bladed lightsaber behind him, ready to slash the deadly weapon at whoever comes near. Maul is a fearsome sight: Red and yellow eyes glare from a red face embellished with black tattoos. Eight small horns sprout from his head.
Fortunately, he’s only 4 inches tall and made of 3 ounces of molded plastic.
The figurine alone is enough to grab fans’ attention. But under Darth Maul’s sand-colored base is a computer chip. Place him on a pad in front of a video game console and — presto— lights flash, sparks fly and the plastic action figure is transformed into a digital character in a video game, ready to set off on an adventure inside the screen.
As kids, most of us imagined a world where the toys we played with on our living room floor came to life. The Walt Disney Co. is edging closer to that fantasy — animating toys to make it seem like they’re playing with us.
It’s all part of Disney’s ambitious effort to capitalize on its pantheon of characters, which includes Mickey Mouse, Iron Man and Princess Leia; grab kids’ attention (along with their parents’ wallets); and, in the process, reshape the $18 billion US toy industry. That goal hinges on a game called “Disney Infinity.” Part collectible figurines, part video game, Infinity gives kids the freedom to dream up their own storylines, create new worlds and fill them with the Disney characters they want.
If Infinity’s developers have their way, every toy Disney sells could step inside a game-generated world that we build with our imaginations.
“Toys in the future will not be like the ones you and I grew up with,” says John Vignocchi, who heads production for Disney Interactive. “This is the future of toys.”
Toys have been around for as long as humans have been able to pick up sticks.
Archaeologists found toys in Egyptian pyramids, among ancient Greek artifacts and even buried alongside 5,000-year-old ruins in the Indus Valley, near the borders of modern day India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Today’s mass-market toys chart their history to Hasbro, which started producing plastic toys during World War II and soon offered doctor and nurse kits for kids. In 1952, Hasbro launched its first hit: Mr. Potato Head. The first toy advertised on television, Mr. Potato Head came with interchangeable ears, eyes, shoes, noses and mouths. Mattel introduced Barbie seven years later; Ken showed up as her love interest in 1961.
The millennial generation had Teddy Ruxpin, an animatronic bear whose mouth and eyes moved while “reading” stories from a cassette tape stored in its back.
Nowadays, toy makers are looking beyond those simple technologies.
Activision created the “toys to life” game genre in 2011 when it launched Skylanders. As with “Disney Infinity,” Skylanders’ toys appear on the screen when placed on a special pad connected to a video game console or tablet. Nintendo and Lego sell their own toys-to-life games, too.
In March, Mattel unveiled the $75 Hello Barbie doll, which uses Siri-like voice recognition technology to listen to and interact with its owner.
Meanwhile, Hasbro and Disney together created Playmation, a $120 setup where kids strap on a glove that, using motion sensors, infrared technology and Bluetooth wireless communications, can “shoot” at toy action figures. The glove vibrates when the toys shoot back.
The reason for all this technical wizardry? Today’s kids expect it, thanks to their constant exposure to smartphones and tablets. “Now that they’re used to that high level of interactivity, they will want to get it from their toys,” says Lior Akavia, CEO of Seebo, which helps toy makers build smarts into their toys.