Four children prepared for a fight on a darkened battlefield, their enemy a notorious supervillain named Ultron.
A pair of lab coat-wearing technicians slipped weaponized gloves onto the kids and implored them to save the day. Soon, a little boy and girl were sprinting out of the blast zone of an explosion, then used their palm cannons to neutralize the baddies, a legion of bomber bots.
The children were trying out Playmation, a new smart toy from Walt Disney Co., inside a closed Disney Store at the Glendale Galleria mall. The entertainment giant will begin hosting the demos this weekend in an effort to educate consumers about its new hi-tech plaything, which debuts Oct. 4.
Playmation, which costs $119.99 for a starter pack, relies on a system of interconnected devices to put users in the middle of the action. It's a marriage of digital and traditional toys, and one that requires a bit of explanation to understand.
Expensive playthings laden with technology can be a hard sell, requiring well-crafted marketing pushes that increasingly include elements such as Youtube videos to illustrate a product's features, analysts said. Educational toy maker LeapFrog, for example, has stumbled at explaining to moms and dads why its LeapPad tablet computers are superior to rivals such as the iPad.
Retail experts said the Playmation events will be an important tool for Disney in its edification efforts.
“It actually gives them a chance to educate parents and kids about the toys in real time,” said Jason Moser, an analyst at the Motley Fool. “In the process, they are in the Disney Store; what's to stop you from buying more stuff on the way out?”
Parents can register their kids online for the free demos, which will be available at 90 Disney Stores in North America. They'll be held on Saturday and Sunday mornings before the outlets open.
Participants will be able to try out the system for up to 30 minutes, playing with Disney Store workers (those coated technicians) and other consumers. Shorter tryouts will also be available during normal business hours.
Playmation will launch with a line of toys based on the world of “Avengers,” the Marvel comic franchise that spawned two blockbuster films from Disney. The starter pack includes the plastic Iron Man “repulsor” glove and four other smart toys, including action figures. A free app will chart players' progress and connect them with other participants.
Users are sent on missions that allow them to jump, duck, dive and run around, guided by voice commands directing the action (similar to laser tag, only more complicated). They can team up with another player, also wearing a glove, to shoot at the action figures, which attach to an interactive base station called a “power activator.”
At the demo, children ages 8 to 10 had the full run of the Disney store, racing past “Spider-Man” sweatshirts, crouching near a display of “Aladdin” backpacks, and popping out from behind a rack of “101 Dalmatians” figurines to fire their weapons. Nearby, their parents watched the action unfold in between glugs of coffee and glances at their smartphones.
Playmation is aimed squarely at a generation of children that has been weaned on digital devices. Their parents may not be as comfortable with the technology.
However, toy makers know that there is no better way to illustrate a product's features — and win over befuddled moms or dads — than by letting parents watch their children play with it, analysts said.
“If you see your kid having a lot of fun with a toy like that, our first inclination is to make our kids happy,” Moser said. “It shuts down all rational decision-making, and they just buy it.”
Other companies have used in-store demos to help educate consumers about their smart toys. When Activision launched Skylanders, a line of video games that also incorporates action figures, it created interactive displays that were installed at retailers such as Toys R Us, Target and Wal-Mart, said John Coyne, senior vice president of consumer marketing for Activision.
“People got excited when they physically got to interact with the toy,” he said. “That could pose challenges because you want to get that experience out to as many people as possible.”
In addition to the displays — which demonstrate how the physical products are brought to life in the video games — Skylanders has also taken the toys to shopping malls on road shows and partnered with YouTube stars to illustrate how the games work.
Every year, Skylanders also updates its in-store displays with new videos and elements. It will do so again, for example, when the newest game, “Skylanders SuperChargers,” rolls out in September. A starter pack will cost $74.99 on all gaming consoles.
For Disney, its demos are especially important because the Playmation toys are pricey, said Laurie Schacht, co-publisher of the Toy Insider, a toy reviews site.
“It could be one of the hot toys for the holidays; the one downside is the high price point,” she said.
Elissa Margolis, senior vice president of Disney Store North America, said putting Playmation in the hands of would-be customers would “really help to show the power of what can be experienced.”
Disney declined to disclose the costs associated with creating Playmation, which took roughly three years to develop in collaboration with Hasbro.
By October, the demos will be available in 100 of the company's roughly 210 stores. That retail infrastructure allows Disney to offer a service that few competitors can match, Schacht said.
“Retailers typically don't educate parents; it really falls on the toy manufacturers,” she said. “But because it's Disney, they can take advantage of the stores they own.”
Parents bringing their children to the Playmation demo events will be able to pre-order the system in the stores. They'll also be able to peruse other merchandise, possibly leading to additional sales, analysts said.