Christmas has become awfully technical in the last decade or so. But if you've already caved and bought your child a smartphone and iPad or anything else with a webcam on it, you might consider buying them a Popar book to go with it.
These books employ augmented reality to overlay interactive digital images and games into a standard children's book. Or if you need to sell this to your 4-year-old daughter, "It's a magic pop-up book that you can play with if you look at through the iPad."
The technology is pretty impressive and they've pulled down a number of awards including a nod from "The View" for being one of the best toys at the New York Toy Fair.
Here's how it works. You buy a Popar book, let's say it's about planets and you schlep it home for your kids. Once home you pullout your smartphone, head to the app store and download the free Popar software and then point your smartphone camera at the book. The fancy programming inside the Popar software recognizes the cover of the book automatically and 3D animations with narrations start emerging from the book.
In the case of their Planets 3D, looking at the cover triggers an animation of a shuttle taking off, complete with sounds. Now where things get interesting is that the shuttle is "anchored" to the book, so if you move the camera closer you'll actually zoom in on the shuttle. If you spin the book around the shuttle will spin with the book and you can see the launch from pretty much any angle.
Now all of this might sound really technical and perhaps not particularly enjoyable but having actually had some hands on time with the technology, it grows on you immediately. Your child probably passingly familiar with "The Spiderwick Chronicles," a series of stories centered around children who discover means of revealing an otherwise invisible world of fey folk that exists all around them.
Popar books are like that except that you're using an iPad to see and navigate around a three dimensional Jupiter that appears to be springing out of the table. When we visited the Popar offices they showed us a series of augmented cards that project images of the planets. If you wanted to show your kid the order of the planets, you could build your own spinning animated map of the solar system by just shuffling cards around on a table.
Of course if that all sounds a little too educational all their books also include some straight up video games that incorporate augmented reality. The construction book has a breakout clone that's surprisingly fun, it's like a Kinetic game that doesn't get distracted when the cat runs through the living room. The planets book has you in a missile command style game with a 3D battle map that you have to bob and weave around.
As with many things, it's probably just easier to try it out for yourself. If you have a compatible device you can download the software and test patterns. They've got the shuttle launch pattern on there as well as bugs, construction and a few others.
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Augmented reality technology is still very much in its infancy and while using a camera equipped tablet or phone to see an invisible world of information grounded in reality might be clunky, the creators are the first to admit that the future is definitely in wearable augmentation. They say they're very excited to see what will become of Google Glass and similar technology which will take augmented reality and integrate it into your average walking around experience. Even then we're still a ways off from the science fiction dreams for augmented reality.
But in the meantime, for a taste of the future you can order some Popar books online. They sell kits that come with a webcam to help you get started for $40 but the books themselves are only $20 so if you already have a webcam, smartphone or tablet you can just grab a book and download the free software. If you want to save on shipping, or hoping to snag one of the sold out products you can swing by Kidstop Toys in Scottsdale. The should also have a demonstration kiosk there so you can get some hands on time before making the purchase.