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Disney gets physical with digital toy Playmation

Toy makers are rushing to incorporate technology into products to entice children who are drawn to smartphones

Disney has cooked up a toy that will enable kids to heed their parents' demands that they go outside and play — without ever having to shut off their digital devices.

Called Playmation, the system of connected products features characters and story lines from blockbuster Disney film franchises, starting with "Avengers."

It marks a bold step for Walt Disney Co. The Burbank entertainment giant has traditionally licensed its brands to third parties. But it has not only designed this line in-house but also has charted new territory in the toy industry, where technology is rewriting the rules.

Toy makers are rushing to incorporate technology into products to entice children who are drawn to smartphones and video games instead of more classic playthings. Mattel will soon start selling a Wi-Fi-connected Barbie that analyzes children's speech and talks back. Even board games such as Monopoly are finding new life as smartphone apps.

Playmation will launch in October with a line of "Avengers"-themed toys that includes a plastic Iron Man "repulsor" glove worn by players. A starter pack, which will retail for $119.99, also comes with four other smart toys, including two action figures.

Users who don the glove will be guided by a narrator on missions that allow them to jump, duck, dive and run around. They can interact with another player wearing a glove — and with the action figures. (Think laser tag, but more complicated).

A free app, AvengersNet, will track competitors' progress and offer additional missions. The toys are built to be portable, so kids can play in the house, backyard or a park.

Analysts said that Playmation — with its interconnected, wearable technology and cloud-based digital interface — is a sign of where the toy industry is headed in order to win over tech-savvy children.

"It's role-play for the new millennium child that grows up in the digital age," said Jim Silver, editor in chief of TTPM, a toy review website. "That's what kids really want to do."

Disney has 25 patents pending on the technology that underpins Playmation, which took roughly three years to develop. The company declined to disclose development costs.

"What we are doing is using light, sound and that physical feedback — all coordinating with the connected toys in the system — to really bring this fantasy to life," said Afsoun Yazdian, director of product management for Playmation.

Disney revealed Playmation at an event in Hollywood on Tuesday that was emceed by Thomas Staggs, the company's recently appointed chief operating officer. Presiding over his first major announcement as Disney's new No. 2, Staggs said Playmation offered "physical play for a digital generation."

At a product demonstration held after Staggs' presentation, a girl playing the game was out of breath as she ran around dodging an attack from Ultron, the central villain of the recently released blockbuster "Avengers: Age of Ultron." At the end of the child's game, in which she used the glove to fend off baddies, her results were displayed on an iPad running the AvengersNet app.

Kareem Daniel of Disney Consumer Products said the technology that powers Playmation wasn't available even a half-decade ago.

"The way kids are playing today is evolving — their desires and expectations are changing accordingly," said Daniel, senior vice president of strategy and business development. "What we did with Playmation was use technology to bring our stories and characters to life in a way that frankly we were never able to before."

Jaime Katz, an analyst at Morningstar, said Playmation offers another way for Disney to get its highly popular "Avengers" brand to the public.

Children will "love to behave like the characters they admire, and this brings that ability to life," she said. "It gets them out of the house and being physically active rather than just sitting behind tablets to get their technology fix."

Katz said that although the $120 price is high for a toy, there's a market for higher-end play items with new technology. Toy maker Hasbro is manufacturing and distributing the line in partnership with Disney.

Disney said "Star Wars"-themed kits will be available in 2016. That timing is noteworthy: In December, Disney, which bought the "Star Wars" production company Lucasfilm in 2012, will release the first new film in the franchise in a decade.

A year after the "Star Wars" Playmation toy is released, Disney will begin selling a version centered on "Frozen," the hit 2013 film that is the highest-grossing animated picture of all time.

"If there was ever a time to do it, this is the time, with all of the characters and franchises that they have," said Tuna Amobi, an S&P Capital IQ analyst.

In an era in which so-called smart toys have drawn the attention of consumer advocacy groups that worry about the privacy of children, Disney has built certain safeguards into Playmation.

Yazdian said Playmation "does not record or store anything beyond simple, anonymous game play information."

Disney recently launched another product that offers wearable technology: MyMagic+, an online system that allows theme park visitors to more efficiently tour attractions. It includes a bracelet that can be used as a hotel room key and a theme park ticket, as well as to make purchases.

Also, the company has found success with "Disney Infinity," a video game that incorporates physical toys into the on-screen action. The game, which is available on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and other platforms, was released in 2013 after a development process that cost Disney about $100 million.

Twitter: @danielnmiller, @byshanli

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