Toymakers are tapping into the popularity of mobile applications for some of this holiday season's hottest toys.
Pairing tablets and smartphones with playthings creates something called "appcessories," hybrid toys such as the $50 Helo TC helicopter that's remote-controlled by an iPhone. There are even board games and gadgets inspired by popular apps such as the $17 Angry Birds Knock on Wood Game and the $40 I Am T-Pain microphone.
Apps have been a ubiquitous part of the digital landscape for the past three years, but this is the first holiday season that their influence is so obvious in toy aisles.
Analysts say the proliferation speaks to manufacturers' renewed interest in high-tech toys. Before the recession was a steady stream of techno toys, usually knockoffs of adult electronics. The collapse of the economy spurred a slew of low- to no-tech toys, such as Zhu Zhu pets, that were easy on the wallets of cash-strapped shoppers.
"The economy has put limits on what prices can be charged, but the toy companies know that kids want and expect interactivity and relevant digital expressions of play," said analyst Sean McGowen of Needham & Co.
Toymakers are known for taking cues from popular culture, from Harry Potter Lego sets to Justin Bieber dolls, but digital doodads can be tricky. If they are too sophisticated and pricey, companies risk alienating kids, not to mention parents. So many makers are focusing on giving new life to toy box staples, using apps to add zing without too much extra cost.
Take the Disney-Pixar Cars 2 AppMates. The $19.99 kit, which comes with two miniature cars, is essentially designed to transform Mom and Dad's iPad into a classic raceway. Each little roadster is automatically detected when placed on the tablet and can be revved up with car sounds, after downloading the free app from Disney.
Crayola put a high-tech spin on a traditional plaything by teaming with Griffin Technology to create the iMarker Digital Stylus and Crayola ColorStudio HD app. This $29.99 combo can simulate a coloring book with Crayola crayons, markers and paints when it touches an iPad.
"Kids are digital natives," said Vicky Lozano, vice president of marketing at Crayola. "The biggest challenge is making sure we pace ourselves and not get distracted by the next shiny object."
Whether appcessories fly off the shelves this season, Adrienne Appell, a spokeswoman for the Toy Industry Association, anticipates they will have longevity in the market.
"Every kid wants to play with the iPad or Mom and Dad's iPhone, and that's not going away," she said. "When toymakers are able to be out in the market with characters kids love and interactive technology, it's a win-win situation."