By Ronald Grover
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Walt Disney toys are sold around the world. Now, children can find them in the cloud as well.
The media giant is teaming up with toy company JAKKS Pacific and Patrick Soon-Shiong, Los Angeles' wealthiest person, on a new line of toys - with a nifty technological twist designed to link the goodies that kids lug home from the store with Disney's stable of well-known animated characters.
"DreamPlay", developed by Soon-Shiong's NantWorks company, and JAKKS works via an app that can be downloaded on Apple Inc devices like the iPad, or smartphones and tablets running Google Inc Android software. When a device's camera is trained on any toy specifically designed to work with DreamPlay, it triggers one of thousands of preset animations that appear on the device's screen and seem to be unfolding in the real world.
With viewers' eyes locked on the tablet or smartphone screen, fairies appear to glide in and out of buildings, animated critters start playing musical instruments, mythical characters prance on a toy piano's keyboard.
Disney, which licensed its characters to DreamPlay, and its partners hope that children will take to the new approach, which is intended to extend and expand the life of the toy. But it remains to be seen if the concept will prove to be more than a novelty, and be able to arrest a child's infamously short attention span.
The three will demo their concept on Tuesday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, but Reuters got a sneak peak at the technology on Monday.
In a showroom in the 20th floor of a Santa Monica, Calif. building, visitors to JAKKS' demonstration are treated to an animated version of Sebastian - the red Jamaican crab from Disney's "Little Mermaid" movie - who pops up onscreen on an iPad seconds after the tablet's camera is trained on a real-life set of toy bongo drums.
The animated crab pounces on the drums and proceeds to bang out a calypso song onscreen, with both Sebastian and the physical drum set appearing together as if the two shared the same cartoon.
REAL, VIRTUAL INTERACTION
DreamPlay allows not just Sebastian, but also Tinker Bell and a host of other well-loved Disney characters to "interact" virtually with specially made toys via image-recognition software. The software was developed by Soon-Shiong, a former cancer surgeon who created drugs to fight diabetes and breast cancer and then sold the companies that produced them for $8.6 billion.
Soon-Shiong teamed with JAKKS, a $678 million-a-year toy maker and licensee of toys based on the Princess line of dolls, Marvel action figures and other Disney toys, among others.
The technology works via the "cloud" - images and video clips stored on remote servers that are streamed to kids' mobiles when the app recognizes a particular item.
"It's a tremendous way to combine great technology and Disney's magical story telling to extend the time a child can play with a toy," said Bob Chapek, president of Disney's consumer products unit. "Kids find out that playing with their toy doesn't end when they get it home."
Since taking over in 2011, Chapek has repositioned Disney's consumer product unit to expand its use of technology with its toys. DreamPlay is the first of what Chapek says are other products that will twin technology with familiar Disney toys, although he won't name them.
Down the road, Disney may explore new business models, including selling subscriptions to content created specifically to be used with a particular toy, said Chapek.
The market is hardly certain for a product that requires a child to hold up a phone or tablet, and peer through it to play with a toy that's stationary. Will children want to see Rapunzel endlessly dancing on the keys of a piano or Rosetta, a fairy from Disney's "Tinker Bell" movies, fly in and out of a cottage?
"The technology may be great, but no one has proven to me yet that a kid will sit in front of an iPhone or iPad instead of playing with a toy that's right in front of him," said Sean McGowan, a toy analyst with Needham & Co who downgraded JAKKS to hold in September along with other toy companies, and then downgraded JAKKS to underperform in October.
JAKKS intends to begin selling DreamPlay versions of toys from the Disney Princess line in October. It will then expand its offerings next year, with international sales starting in 2014, said Stephen Berman, JAKKS President and CEO.
DreamPlay toys will be "a couple of dollars" costlier than the regular version, he says.
Target stores and Toys R Us are among the U.S. retailers who will carry the DreamPlay line, Berman says. Top-Toy, the giant Nordic retailer, has also signed on, while Beijing Hualian Group, which operates supermarkets and department stores across China, is coming onboard as well.
"Kids don't own iPhones or iPads but they all know how to use them," says Berman. "Kids have so much more imagination than we do. Imagine recording a bunch of the videos and giving the kid an iPad to play with them on a trip to see the grandparents."
JAKKS will ramp up marketing for the DreamPlay line, said Berman. DreamPlay toys will be prominently displayed at all the partner-retailers, he added, and shoppers will be encouraged to use their smartphones to view them.
Those that aim smartphones at a boxed Tinker Bell, for instance, may get a start as the fairy from "Peter Pan" literally soars out of the box, leaving an empty package behind.
"Technology can help people live better, work better, play better," said Soon-Shiong as he showed off the line of toys. "This is the way they will play better."
(Reporting By Ronald Grover; Edited By Edwin Chan)