I recently wondered what goes into making truly kid-friendly designs versus ones that seem to appeal to more to their parents, or their parents’ colleagues. Suwappu, a prototype augmented-reality toy from Dentsu (with help from Berg), is gorgeously designed and an intriguing application of computer vision. But something about it seems more geared toward Kid Robot connossieurs than actual kids.
Here’s how Suwappu works: You set the cute, blocky toy characters on a tabletop surface and point your smartphone at them with the Suwappu app activated. The app uses the phone’s camera to display onscreen a real-time holographic 3-D world around them, complete with little word bubbles from the toys themselves. Matt Webb of Berg (whom Dentsu worked with to create the concept film above) describes this technology as "markerless augmented reality": Instead of requiring ugly QR codes, the app can generate its digital wonderlands simply by recognizing the toys’ faces. Dentsu is even more bullish on Suwappu’s appeal: "We’ve also been talking to clients about the possibilities behind the technology for all kinds of different products and brands, and about the Suwappu platform as a media channel in its own right," it writes.
Call me a churl, but Suwappu just doesn’t look like much fun to me. It essentially replaces a kid’s own limitless inner play-universe with canned narratives coughed up by adults—and worse, the whole thing has to be "experienced" through the tiny keyhole of Mom or Dad’s smartphone camera. Dentsu writes that "the idea that this content and storytelling is happening, whether it’s accessed or not, is also properly magical for us, like Woody and Buzz when the door’s shut." Citing Toy Story as inspiration here is pretty ironic, since Woody and Buzz instantly go limp whenever their owner Andy actually wants to play with them; they know their duty as toys is to let Andy do the imagining. Suwappu’s toys-as-TV scheme, meanwhile, would require "in-house Dentsu writers for the characters, who can produce episodic content over time, and intertwining story lines referencing real world events, as well as the toys’ physical experience they’ve had in the world that week, as they live with their owner." Pass me the Scope, because I just threw up in my mouth a little.
Yes, I know—toys and TV have been joined at the hip for decades already. But while I may have loved watching Masters of the Universe and G.I. Joe after school as a kid, when I pulled those action figures out onto my bedspread, I was in charge. (Could a Hasbro employee have anticipated my idea of unscrewing the back of Cobra Commander and removing the rubber band that held his limbs together, so that I could make his body blow apart in mental slow-mo as Sergeant Slaughter gunned him down? I think not.) As an haute design techno-tchotchke meant to impress the kidults at your next loft party, Suwappu is pretty darn cool. But as a "platform" for truly imaginative play by human children, this prototype leaves me cold.