Disney Appmates Hands-On Preview

Ask any iPad-owning parent, and they’ll tell you kids today have developed a natural affinity for the iPad. Something about the super-simple touch interface connects kids to these devices instantly. Disney, which has always made technology seem magical, is creating a brand-new iPad interface called Appmates, which will let kids control a Cars-themed iPad game using actual toys.

The toy packs will be sold in pairs at major retailers like Target and Wal-mart, in addition to Apple and Disney stores. For $20, you’ll receive two miniature plastic cars with special conductive pads that are recognized by the iPad and Appmates app. The app is able to distinguish the patterns underneath Lightning McQueen, Mater, and other compatible toys.

This interface is used in a number of clever ways. As you drive around the virtual environment of Radiator Springs, you’ll hear the character’s voice react to each bump or jostle. Mirrors inside the toy car will reflect light from the iPad through the toy’s headlights, and Mater’s siren as well.

The free app includes six races and around 10 missions to start, with more coming in future free updates and paid expansions. Instead of being heavily mission-based, the game is open-world, with no explicit goals except to explore and earn coins. Coins can be used to unlock new equipment, like tires that leave unique tracks, and fuel that releases colorful clouds as you drive around.

Plus, there are a number of hidden details to discover. If you buy a rocket launcher, you can ignite a fireworks stand in one part of the world. You can also tow around broken-down cars, admire your car’s virtual reflection in a mirror, change day to night, and tip tractors with a honk of your horn.

The toys are designed to keep your iPad screen from getting scratched, but you can also use the app without the toys if you don’t want to risk it. Appmates seems like a fun take on augmented reality if you use the toys, but we’d also like to see more activities and variety to justify the $20 toy purchase.

It’s innovations like this that make us think the iPod generation will see playtime very differently than their parents, as the line between reality and fantasy gets blurred by technology. Introducing a videogame character you can play with on the carpet or on the iPad is a big step for Disney, and we can’t wait to see how tech-savvy kids react.