Augmented reality toy can put a dinosaur or mermaid in your home

HoloToyz combines an app with stickers, tattoos, books and decals to engage kids

Once upon a time, we had strict screen-time rules. Ten minutes at a time, never in the last hour before bed, and only under strict adult supervision.

The recent pandemic lockdowns have stretched our definitions of “limited screen time” to be more elastic. A lot more elastic, if I’m being honest. Remote learning, video calls and running out of entertainment ideas coinciding with the launch of Disney+ put paid to that. But that doesn’t mean it has become a free for all.

Although there are plenty of educational uses for a tablet or smartphone, I’m not comfortable with the idea of my children disappearing into an app and blocking out the outside world for long periods of time. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen, or that I’m against it, just that I’d rather limit it to the times when I really need it.

Which is why the HoloToyz products seemed like a good compromise. It takes a physical product, such as stickers, tattoos, books and wall decals, and mixes it with augmented reality via the HoloToyzapp. The subject matter is varied too, covering interests from sea life and dinosaurs to puppies and unicorns. They look just like normal stickers and books, but download the free app and you can unlock the digital content, an augmented reality experience that allows you – sorry, your child – to interact with the characters and learn more about them.

HoloToyz has a few things going for it. First, it's Irish, set up by Kate Scott and Declan Fahy, giving it that home-grown appeal.

Second, it has not only survived the pandemic, it was born during it and has thrived. Scott and Fahy, who have children of their own, set up the business in 2020. And third – and most importantly – the products are child-focused. That means no random in-app purchases to deal with, and no intrusive ads popping up when you least expect it.

No registration

As you might expect, you’ll need a smartphone or tablet, the accompanying app and one of the HoloToyz products to get going. But that’s it – you don’t have to register an account, hand over your email address or even tell them your name.The app doesn’t ask for personal information beyond a date of birth, which its founder say is to comply with regulations in place to protect child data such as the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. That means you can be up and running in a matter of seconds, minimising frustration for everyone.

In fact, the entire product range is pleasantly simple and fuss-free. Open the app, select your product and then simply point the device’s camera at the sticker, tattoo, book or decal. Unicorns dance and bow, dinosaurs roar or stomp, and monster trucks rev their engines, right before your eyes. If you are feeling a bit braver, try out the spooky and tattoo collection.

My children can be embarrassingly stereotypical at times: my seven-year-old daughter loves unicorns and puppies; my four-year-old son is obsessed with monster trucks and dinosaurs. Both of them love the sea, so the Super Sea Creatures book was an instant hit. Point the camera at the pages of the book and not only do the animated dolphins start swimming around and react to your taps on the screen, the book will also read aloud. It was the same reaction for the Pet Party and Jurassic Dinos books; after all, where else are you going to get to play with a stegosaurus?

The decals are repositionable, and won’t remove layers of paint or wallpaper if you need to move them. I put that to the test shortly after smoothing a unicorn on to my daughter’s bedroom wall – at a wonky angle, as it turned out. Not only was it easy to remove but it also stayed put when I straightened it up. There are some bonus decals included, smaller items that you can place around your mermaid or dinosaur.

High-quality animations

One of the most magical parts of the whole experience for the kids was when I took the unicorn out of the wall decal, so to speak, and put it into the room. You can place the augmented reality characters anywhere in your room, so your child gets a photo op too. We spent a good 10 minutes snapping strategically angled photos so it looked like she was petting her own unicorn.

Not only is the HoloToyz technology easy to use, but it also works quickly. Children don’t do well with slow, buggy apps, but then neither do I. HoloToyz skirts this issue easily, and the animations themselves are high-quality, so you don’t ever feel short-changed.

There are a few things you need to be sure of though. You’ll need a well-lit room, whether that is daylight or artificial, to get the best out of the augmented reality. If you want to bring your wall decal characters into the real world, you’ll need a flat space big enough to accommodate a small, computer-generated T-Rex or mermaid, similar to how Pokemon Go works with its augmented reality battles. And you may run out of arm space with the tattoos before long.

There's more to come from HoloToyz (holotoyz.com), with the company signing deals with Nickelodeon and Sega that will see Paw Patrol and Sonic the Hedgehog feature in its interactive product range.

The best part of the whole thing though is that there isn’t a single product in the entire range over €25. So not only does it get their imaginations going and have an interactive element, it won’t break the bank.