This year’s toy fairs again showed an industry in hot pursuit of products that adeptly transcend digital and physical play, and whilst high profile failures are worthy of reflection it is still very much an area with heavy investment and audience demand.

In preparation for our masterclass at this year’s Children’s Media Conference, I grabbed children’s UX and digital toy expert Lucy Gill to pool our thoughts on why so many products fail, who is doing (some!) things right and why emerging digital technology might just save physical toys, again.

State of play

The digital/physical play industry is quickly becoming a converging point for the toy, app, gaming and education sectors.

It’s a huge growth area ripe for disruptive innovation. And the prize is big, promising the creative potential to invent a new form of play, the strategic opportunity to future proof the relevance of physical toys (whilst legitimising digital play) and the commercial possibility to take a market share from both segments.

There have been some successes but also many mistakes, with few companies taking the time to really understand children, purchasing behaviours and the mistakes (or successes) of others.

Why are so many failing?

Typically products are failing because they get one of the following wrong:

1. Failure to attract the purchaser

Some exceptional products fail to sell. They are often hard to understand without a demo (a message underlined at Fundamentally Children’s recent event at the Apple Store) and, compared to a pure physical toy, can be seen as expensive and encouraging children towards the evils of screen time. It’s no coincidence that many big sellers like Disney Infinity and Skylanders are in the gaming space where a physical toy addition is perceived to do the opposite. A ‘low threshold’ which allows players a quick, easy way into the experience is critical.

2. Failure to combine physical and digital play

Many products have a physical and digital component but the two largely work alone. Real successes require the digital and physical to be symbiotic, adding significant value as a combination to the separate experiences. Products like Osmo, iLoom and Sphero are positive examples here.

3. Failure to stimulate pester power

If children don’t see the value they will not push parents to buy the product. For products (particularly aimed at age 6 upwards) it’s hard to be successful without this. A deep understanding of play and children is vital to achieving this. Collectibles, as used by Disney Infinity and Skylanders, are one successful strategy here.

4. Insufficient longevity of play

Many digital games have a short shelf life. Whilst we would never encourage addictive digital games, a balance of challenges and sandbox play, with regular additions (through purchases or unlocking in-game features), is necessary to retain interest whilst keeping sessions snackable. To achieve this, ‘wide walls’ offering modes of play and ‘high ceilings’ offering enough advancement and long-term challenge for more advanced players, are key.

Learning from the best

There are a lot of released, pre-released and prototype products out there that have captured the audiences imagination, demonstrate best practise in design or are leading the charge on innovation. We’ve included a selection of our favourites below:

  • Osmo – A wonderful example of combining physical and digital to add real fun and educational value. The new coding game is a welcome addition.
  • iLoom – Inspiring real physical skills and creativity as well as a social element with a limited but enthusiastic community.
  • Sphero SPRK – Bringing coding skills into the robotics space in a fun, flexible way, although with a high price point.
  • Beasts of Balance – A very successful Kickstarter that combines a jenga-ish physical balance game with a digital ‘evolution’ game. Tantalising and shipping in November 2016.
  • Skylanders – Cleverly attracts parents and children yet includes limited digital-physical combined play. Cynically more of a mechanised digital product.
  • LEGO mindstorms – Fabulous combination of physical and digital with a clear educational focus. Doesn’t reward explorative play, but system thinking.
  • LEGO Fusion – An inspired way to add value to physical toys, however it encourages two separate phases of play – physical or digital – rather than combining them into a single experience.
  • Tiggly – Lovely example of how physical products add educational value to app-based play, but like Osmo, it’s hard to understand its value without a demonstration.
  • Pebli Town – A good combination of physical and digital play which is popular with pre-schoolers.
  • Playsketch – Allows the creation of levels and game assets with pen and paper. A great example of bringing free form real-world creative expression into digital play in a meaningful way.
  • Crayola AR – Building upon Disney’s proof of concept, this product uses image recognition and dynamic texturing to bring to live 2D colouring-ins into 3D form.
  • StikBot – A great approach to making stop animation fun and accessible to children via the fun little toy and simple app.
  • Sam Labs – A great introduction to electronics, coding and creativity. Providing amazing ideas through its active community to encourage longevity of play.
  • Makey Makey – Incredibly versatile piece of kit enabling a never ending array of projects that make great use of bananas, playdoh etc. Very popular with coding clubs and whilst accessible to all, adult support helps children get the most from this.
  • Little Bits – Electronic building blocks for the next generation of inventors. Don’t miss their inspiring Ted Talk.
  • Dash Dot – Opens up the world of robots and coding to children.

The future

Successful products understand the extent to which technology can add value to the dynamics of play and achieve a symbiosis of the physical and digital experience. We hope to see a growth in products that are perceived as pulling children back from digital towards active, creative, imaginative or social play, rather than towards more screentime.

Programming skills are still a strong area to watch. Whilst something like Ziro is tantalising to technology natives, a highly collectible coding-related product range which offers kids fun play while appealing to parents and offering a low price point for entry could have a significant impact.

Advances in computer vision and positional tracking will also disrupt this space. Experiences delivered with AR technologies like Hololens, Magic Leap and CastAR will be enhanced when used with connected physical props. Even the encapsulated world of VR will capitalise on the blurring between the real and virtual as they continue to embrace physical movement and real-world peripherals.

It’s an exciting time to be involved in the sector with significant opportunities for products that understand children’s play, buying habits and technology. And it feels like we’re only just getting started.


To hear more about the future of digital and physical play, join Lucy on the Connected Toy Story panel on Thursday 7th July, or join Phil on his is masterclass on Wednesday 6th: How to design games children want. Alternatively, feel free to just drop us a line for chat.

Lucy Gill, Founder of Digills Research & Consulting, is a Children’s UX, apps and digital expert. She was previously a Director at Fundamentally Children and creator of their Good App Guide, and remains an active Associate for them. Lucy is a thought leader in this area, and is dedicated to bringing her extensive experience, passion for good UX and love of innovative children’s products into projects to benefit the next generation.

Phil Stuart

Phil is PRELOADED's founder and Executive Creative Director. He is passionate about the possibility space created by emerging and converging technologies, and inventing new forms of play with purpose.