Apps that turn into toys

How Toca Boca, Makego and AppMates are changing the way children use grown-up gadgets

More than a couple of times I've seen how parents hopelessly try to distract or entertain their children with their iPhones. Your smartphone is always with you and it's normally packed with content, so what could be more convenient? Kids love multitouch gestures, flicking through pictures and recognising people on them. You can do all that with the built-in Photos. What about more creative options?

Toca Boca's Tea Party uses the iPad just like another toy

Then there's also a parallel App Store dedicated to the little ones that I haven't explored much. In my case I can only talk from what I see with my relatives and friends — I don't have my little app testing buddy yet. From the grown up point of view, however, the most exciting area is when apps cross their boundaries and want to interact with physical objects. Let's see some examples of how you can use your iPhone more creatively with your children.

The Swedish studio Toca Boca has to be my first mention. From a completely unknown name to a brand that children identify and associate with fun in little over a year. With twelve interactive apps or digital toys — it's difficult to find a way to define them — Toca Boca has earned its reputation of beautiful, honest and educational fun. If you take the time to go to its site, it mentions the whole idea of this post as one of its guiding principles:  

We believe we can make digital products that can be a part of, and facilitate, different types of play. On screen, and away from the screen too.

Checking Toca Boca's App Store apps is a trip to my childhood memories, seeing everyone's favourite toys in a digital form. The massive plastic Smoby kitchen we had at home when I was like three or four — do you remember? — can now be replaced by Toca Kitchen Monsters. It's the same story for doll houses and the cute Sylvanian Families, you get the similar role play experiences with these apps.

Next up is the little known Makego by the British studio Cowly Owl. Its creator Chris O'Shea went for a bold approach and decided to mix traditional toys such as LEGO with the versatility of the iPhone. The premise is simple but can eventually lead to endless play time: build a casing using bricks, paper, cardboard or any material at hand. Then let your child load their favourite transport included and... Boom! You have an interactive toy.

The app comes with three different vehicles: a race car, an ice-cream truck, and a river boat. All three come with their own features and styles of gameplay I suppose. This is kind of critical in extending replay value. The racing car goes around sounds, refueling and customising the car look. The ice-cream van borrows the merchant type role play while the boat is more about reflexes and realise the boat can sink. Makego goes to the extend of recommending different building techniques including a case that is compatible with LEGO brick. Sweet! 

Another household name that children associate with play time is Disney. Tied in with Pixar's Cars 2 movie comes the first series of capacitive physical toys for the iPad. These apparently normal-looking cheap cars come with their own individual sensors that the iPad screen can detect. Coupled with a free Appmates app that serves as a virtual placemat, the result is astonishing.

I've seen these at the Apple Store but you don't see the genious of it until you see them in action. The iPad can correctly identify the orientation to move the road correctly and display the headlights on the right direction. You might not realise at the beginning, but the toys have some translucent headlights that light up during the game. Magic! Obviously you need to purchase the physical toys for much more than you normally would. Mattel is doing something similar with its Hot Wheels line, so watch this space, maybe we're on to something.