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'Avatar' and augmented reality: The future of toys?

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You may not know it yet, but your kids are definitely going to want some Avatar toys. The movie, like Star Wars before it, is a visual-effects watershed that should blow the minds of 10-year-old kids everywhere (and should blow your mind too, as long as you can get past the simplistic plot and occasionally hokey dialogue). Mattel’s new line of Avatar toys includes action figures, an assortment of Pandora creatures, and a few nifty military vehicles. But the toys wouldn’t warrant an association with Avatar if they weren’t high-tech in some way, so Mattel went to the effort to make this the first toy line that uses augmented reality.

Each toy ships with an “i-TAG” badge that you hold in front of your computer’s webcam. Magically, a 3-D model of your toy appears on the screen. As you move the badge around, the animated model follows. Most impressively, if you purchase the Battle Pack collection ($14.99), which features six i-TAG badges, you can have various 3-D models actually fight one another on your screen.

Unfortunately, the augmented-reality feature is a bit glitchy. I tried out a few of the i-TAGs using my iMac’s webcam, and while I had no trouble getting the 3D models to appear, it was a tougher task keeping them active on the screen. Turning the i-TAG so that it was perpendicular to my computer resulted in the camera no longer being able to scan the badge; for this reason, the toys work best with webcams that can be tilted downward. Also, each 3D model only has only one or two specified movements, so most kids will tire of the repetition rather quickly. Still, I love the idea. I could easily see augmented-reality toys flourishing a few years down the line — imagine strategically placing 20 i-TAGs on your desk and then watching a realistically rendered battle unfold. But the technology isn’t quite there yet, so like James Cameron, we’re just going to have to wait awhile.

Below is a video demonstrating the toy. Mattel’s Avatar figures are available now and range from $8.99 to $26.99. So, PopWatchers, what do you think about toys using augmented reality? Pretty promising, or a waste of time?