For more than two years, inside a Walt Disney laboratory built to resemble a child’s bedroom, grade schoolers have been secretly testing an at-home version of Iron Man’s high-tech armor.
Disney’s goal: Use wireless systems, motion sensors and wearable technology to strike a balance between what children want to do (tap screens and play video games) and what parents would prefer (more running around).
The Walt Disney Company unveiled a resulting toy line on Tuesday called Playmation, which will arrive in stores in October. For about $120, an “Avengers” theme starter pack will include a red Iron Man “repulsor” glove that players wear on their right hand and forearm and four smart toys, including two action figures.
Used together, the parts lead players on villain-destroying missions — run, duck, dodge, jump, shoot. A related app provides access to additional assignments and powers. “It’s physical play for a digital generation,” Thomas O. Staggs, Disney’s chief operating officer, said in an email.
Analysts who have had the opportunity to scrutinize Playmation said it could solve a puzzle that had largely stumped the traditional toy industry: What if toys could play back? The answer could ensure the relevancy of companies like Hasbro and Mattel — and Disney — to future generations of children.
“I see this as a breakthrough item, especially in the action and role-play aisle,” Jim Silver, the editor of TTPM, a toy review website, said in an interview. “What Disney has done here is so sophisticated that I actually don’t like the word ‘toy’ for it.”
This can be tricky terrain. Smart toy efforts tend to prompt swift and severe reactions from watchdog organizations, with privacy as a main concern. The latest example is Mattel’s new Internet-connected Hello Barbie, which records children’s speech, analyzes it and provides pertinent responses.
Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a Boston advocacy group, instantly deemed that toy “Eavesdropping Barbie” and began organizing parents against Mattel. The toymaker, whose profit fell 45 percent last year, in part because of declining interest in traditional Barbie products, has defended the digital doll, citing substantial privacy safeguards.
Mindful of this pitfall, Disney has “doggedly designed Playmation with privacy in mind,” said Kareem Daniel, senior vice president of strategy and business development for Disney Consumer Products. The Playmation components, for instance, are intentionally not tethered to an Internet connection during play, he said.
Disney is speeding ahead with the rollout of Playmation. “Star Wars” theme sets will arrive next year; prototypes shown last week to a reporter involved Jedi training and Darth Vader skulduggery. A “Frozen” version is scheduled for 2017. Aimed at children 6 to 12, the toys can also be worn by adults.
With a plethora of characters in the Disney stable and a flexible technology platform to tap into, “Playmation’s potential is tremendous,” Mr. Staggs said.
The core Playmation toys reveal a subtle but important shift at Disney Consumer Products, which has recently experienced rapid growth. (The unit generated $1.4 billion in operating profit last year, a 22 percent increase from 2013.) Disney traditionally has not designed its own toys but rather has licensed its characters to companies like Hasbro and Mattel.
But Playmation was created inside Disney, reflecting an attempt by the company to become more assertive in the creation of new toy categories and generate more growth. In success, Disney will also shut out competitors: Non-Disney characters will not be allowed into what the company is calling a “toy ecosystem.” (Sorry, Batman.)
Playmation has a few challenges. For starters, the line arrives during a management change at Disney Consumer Products. Bob Chapek, the executive who most ardently supported Playmation, was promoted in February to take over the company’s theme parks. His merchandising successor, Leslie Ferraro, has adopted Playmation, but her experience has been entirely in marketing.
In addition, only two people can have the full Playmation experience at one time, at least initially; that could frustrate children.
Depending on how Playmation is marketed, the toy line could also bump into Disney Infinity, a video game and toy product sold by a separate Disney division. To play Infinity, users collect character figurines, which resemble the Playmation action figures. Infinity 3.0, focused on “Star Wars” and costing a cheaper $65 for the starter set, will also arrive in stores in the fall. (Disney said it saw no threat of cannibalization.)
Still, toy analysts said they were encouraged by the depth of Playmation. The “Avengers” set comes with 25 missions out of the box. Disney will also sell add-on Playmation toys — Hulk hands, various action figures — starting around $15 each.
“I don’t think this is something that kids are going to play once and forget about,” Mr. Silver said.
Originally Published in The New York Times