Since the early days of computers, game designers have embraced technology in their games. With technologies like virtual reality, mixed reality and robotics, the intersection of tech and toys is getting closer than ever before. When attending the 2017 Chicago Toy and Game Fair (CHITAG) at Chicago’s Navy Pier, I had the chance to chat with some of the inventors and game makers pushing the boundaries of play by incorporating the power of technology.

“Technology has broadened the possibilities and opportunities for play,” says Mary Couzin, CEO & Founder of the Chicago Toy and Game Week, the organization that runs the Chicago Toy and Game Fair. “More people of all ages are playing than ever before. I don’t believe that technology is replacing traditional toy and games. This is a category that steadily increases.”

Ranging from rolling robots to mixed reality quizzes, CHITAG 2017 was filled to the brim with ingenious fusions of technology in toys and games. Here are some of the highlights from my time on the show floor.

Merge VR CHITAG 2017

Photo Courtesy of John D. Ivanko Photography

Hold a Hologram in your Hand – Merge VR
“The Merge Cube is an augmented reality device that lets you hold holograms in the palm of your hand,” shares Jeremy Kenisky, Vice President of Creative at Merge. At CHITAG 2017, Merge showcased their latest product: the Merge Cube. It’s a small squishy foam block that’s paired with Merge’s VR/AR (virtual and augmented reality) Goggles. Once a smartphone is inserted into the goggles, the cube can be transformed into objects beyond the limits of reality using the technology of Mixed Reality, or MR.

Using a smartphone’s cameras with computer vision, Merge detects the patterns placed all over the cube, capturing the cube’s orientation and position in space. Once the Cube’s location is mapped by a smartphone’s camera, Merge’s MR software suite begins to superimpose virtual imagery on top of the camera’s live feed, mixing the digital objects with real world items.

Using a smartphone inside of Merge’s VR/AR Goggles, the Merge Cube can be transformed into a variety of different items for unique experiences and games. “You can hold the universe in your hand, see our solar system or different planets in mixed reality,” explains Kenisky. A wide range of programs are available online through Merge’s Miniverse platform that use the Merge Cube for everything from navigating a ball through a maze to learning human anatomy. “There’s a ton of different experiences available. There are more than 20 available on the website now and there will be close to 40 or 50 by Christmas day. We’ve got a large range of [experiences and games] that will interest virtually anyone.”

“There has been a lot of research backing up the fact that holding something physically and seeing something generated on top of it is very different from just seeing something in VR/AR,” replies Kenisky, when asked about the strength of mixed reality. “There’s a lot of extra presence that’s given by physically holding something and being able to manipulate it. When you hold something and you see and feel yourself rotate it, there’s a connection that your brain makes. The extra sense of immersion adds a lot to the experience.”

AugmentifyIt CHITAG 2017

Photo Courtesy of John D. Ivanko Photography

STEM Friendly Screen Time with Mixed Reality – AugmentifyIt
“AugmentifyIt is the world’s first mixed reality STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] quiz game,” explains Brett Haase, co-founder and CTO of AugmentifyIt. “I’m a firm believer that Mixed Reality (MR) is the future. Interacting with the virtual world and placing digital objects into our physical world is a powerful technique.” AugmentifyIt gets kids excited about space by popping planets, star systems and other celestial objects off of cards into full 3D models placed digitally into the real world using a tablet or smart phone with MR. Once engaged, kids can then learn more about these objects with scientist-developed STEM quizzes.

“Parents love AugmentifyIt because the kids have fun,” Haase continues. “They’re saying: ‘wow, look, there’s Saturn’. The kids are able to interact with planets like Saturn in a very natural and visual way. At the same time, [kids] take that digital experience of ‘OMG it’s right there in front of me’ and then can take a quiz and learn a lot more about it.”

“Kids are going to have screen time, but parents don’t want to use a screen as a baby sitter,” admits Haase. “Why not make it quality time where they are actually going to learn. We all know that STEM learning is vital to our future and it’s only becoming more prevalent and valued with artificial intelligence, big data and the world we’re moving into.”

Sphero CHITAG 2017

Photo Courtesy of John D. Ivanko Photography

Smart Rolling Robots – Sphero
Based in Boulder, Colorado, Sphero blends physical robotic toys with virtual apps to create new, smarter ways to play. Sphero maybe be best known for their miniature BB-8 droid from Star Wars, but Sphero has developed and produced a wide range of app-enabled robotics. Their creations range from spherical rolling bots like the Sphero and BB-8 to remote controlled cars like the Ultimate Lightning McQueen.

“We look at technology as the bridge to connect the physical experience with the digital experience,” explains Claire Tindall, Senior Director of Marketing at Sphero. “We’re bringing the experience to life and we’re doing that through an app which allows us to continually modify and allow the experience to evolve and grow. We use that philosophy across all of our products. All of our products are app enabled with an educational element.”

At CHITAG 2017, Sphero was showcasing their latest product, the Sphero Mini, a small, ping pong ball sized version of the original Sphero. “We took all of that amazing tech that’s in the classic Sphero and shrunk it down into a teeny tiny form and built some new game play around it,” describes Tindall. Sphero also showed off their Force Band, a wearable bracelet that lets users control Sphero’s Star Wars droids with a wave of the hand. Using your body, harness the power of the Force to pilot droids like BB-8 with pushes, pulls and twists.

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