I tend not to be thrilled with "enhanced" toys that add a pre-packaged digital layer to the natural interactions that a kid can come up with on her own while playing. They usually seem too cumbersome to be fun (hold your phone-cam carefully while you play with this action figure!) or just not that clever once the novelty wears off. But if anyone were going to design a physical/digital toy that felt "just right," it was going to be Lego. Its new set, Life of George, combines an iPhone app with classic plastic bricks into an "augmented reality" experience that actually feels playful.
Life of George’s prefab digital narrative--George is a software engineer with a yen for traveling and photography and even has his own Facebook page--is the least interesting part of the toy, which actually revolves around a simple but addictive game that challenges you to build pixelated illustrations out of Lego bricks before a timer runs out. The illustrations, furnished by the iPhone app, correspond to "photos" that George has taken on his many travels; tapping a blank photo in an album brings up a picture of the Lego design that you have to build using the multicolored physical bricks. Snap it together, lay it on a speckled "play mat, use the iPhone’s camera to scan your creation, and Life of George" rewards you with points based on how quickly and accurately you built it. I blazed through two rounds, and the only reason I stopped is because I have, y’know, a job.
Life of George isn’t perfect--the polka-dotted pattern on the play mat is only slightly less garish and distracting than a QR code, and the rounds of the game start and stop rather abruptly. (I would have appreciated a three-second countdown to get ready after tapping one of the blank photos.) But no matter how old or young you are, there’s nothing like spreading a pile of Lego blocks on the floor and getting to work--and Life of George cleverly augments this simple pleasure with a game that’s simple enough to play casually alone or with friends. In fact, this game would probably be a hit in the break room of an Internet startup just as much as it would be in the family playroom.