Growing up, I would drive my favorite die-cast Hot Wheels on some epic imaginary adventures around the house and on the racing track. As with any good '90s action adventure, it involved a lot of slow-mo, car collisions and explosions.
Now, Mattel is helping kids imagine what they imagine their Hot Wheels races look like, through the help of an augmented reality (AR) racing interface. Spoiler: it still involves plenty of collisions and explosions.
At this year’s Toy Fair in New York City, I visited Mattel’s showcase, where the company is celebrating Hot Wheels’ 50th anniversary. Apart from showing off the new interconnected Hot Wheels City and Rocket League-themed arena, a representative took me to see Augmoto, an AR racing track still in development that will eventually retail for $120 (about £85 / AU$150) and release sometime this fall, or between September and December.
To play Hot Wheels Augmoto Augmented Reality Racing, two players equipped with Bluetooth-connected iPads (no word on Android support) control their car's actions through the tablet.
Your car must complete 30 laps, but has a limited amount of charge, so you need to decide when and for how long to make pit stops to fuel up, or when to shoot weapons at your opponent to slow them down.
This isn't your childhood Hot Wheels
I squared off against an Augmoto engineer named Michael, who ended up lapping me a dozen times over despite going pretty easy on me. Because it turns out that AR racing is no kids’ game.
Augmoto’s cars move on their own, but I still had to watch my AR interface closely. As my power levels fell, so did my speed. Just like in real racing, making timely pit stops is key to staying competitive.
You can also decide when to go for a loop: traverse it successfully, and you hit an item block (think Mario Kart). But mistime opening the gates to the loop or hit it with insufficient speeds, and you’re due to crash... which I did several times before I got the hang of it.
The problem was, it usually took me several seconds to realize my car had flipped, by which point I had derailed Michael’s car by blocking the track. You get so focused on the AR overlay that you barely notice the physical aspect of the race.
Michael said balancing the physical and augmented aspects of Augmoto was the greatest challenge Mattel faced during development. Playtesters’ number one question was, “Where are you supposed to look?” As in, are you supposed to look at the tablet or the track?
So, for the final version, there shouldn't be any AR elements while you’re racing, to keep you focused on the race itself, not the speed listed on the tablet.
“But when you’re pitted, we’re gonna blast you with graphics, and robots, and fire, and things like that,” Michael told us with a grin.
Mattel’s press photo (the headline image) shows a more hectic, graphically intensive interface, which ostensibly you’d only see during a pit stop. We’ll see how the final version stacks up.
The retail release should have drivers blasting each other with missiles and lightning, but the floor demo only had missiles. When hit, your car slows down and begins to smoke until you stop for repairs.
When my opponent launched missiles at me, I couldn’t see the missile, only a “Missile Incoming!” graphic. Mattel plans to actually show the special effects in the final release, but we don’t know how those will look yet.
The entire experience was frantic and, ultimately, fun. And it should hopefully get more enjoyable once you climb the experience's steep learning curve. Plus, it adds some skill and interactivity to Hot Wheels’ non-RC tracks, which typically lend themselves to luck and random chance. But it is expensive compared to most tracks, and may not have the replay value of Hot Wheels’ comparably-priced RC cars, which can be driven off track.
One AR experience, or more?
Mattel has been toying with this tech since last year. Mindracers, an AR Hot Wheels experience built by Osmo, has you throwing physical tokens on a track to virtually boost or obstruct cars, but it’s mostly a non-physical experience visualized on an iPad.
Mattel’s AI Intelligent Race System, meanwhile, lets kids race remote-controlled cars against cars controlled by an AI, and drop virtual hazards like oil slicks to derail opponents. Their Mario Kart tie-in set even lets you attack opponents with shells and bananas. But there’s no VR/AR element to Hot Wheels AI; you can’t see attacks, only hear them through a mic.
With Augmoto, you can’t remote-control your car, but you should be able to see your opponents’ car get zapped by lightning. And there’s the potential to turn one track into several through AR, with different overlays and weapons based on different brands — i.e., koopa shells in place of missiles.
When asked about that potential, a Mattel spokesperson said the company is focusing on Augmoto’s launch, “but always exploring new partnerships.” So it’s unknown for now whether AR expansions are in the cards, or if Mattel would have you buy new tracks for each new AR experience. Plan on Augmoto tying in with just one app interface for now.
See it in AR before you buy
Whether or not Mattel expands on its AR racing set, you’ll be able to see and fiddle with all of its upcoming Hot Wheels City sets in AR.
Also releasing this fall, Mattel’s currently-unnamed app will let parents (and kids) scan the fronts of Hot Wheels boxes in stores and instantly see an AR model of what the completed set looks like. You can hit “Try Me” and watch how the car moves through the track.
Since demo space for toys are at a premium in stores these days, it’s a priority for Mattel to help parents see exactly what they’re buying. Box art shows what the completed track set looks like, but not what it looks like when a car passes through it. Through the AR demo, kids know exactly what to expect.
Mattel is specifically tying the app to Hot Wheels City, a set of 12 different mini-tracks that can all connect with each other's track. So kids will be able to pick a few they like and make a custom set.
With Mattel following LEGO’s lead, it wouldn’t be surprising to see AR become the go-to tech for other toy companies to show off their products in action, in a way they can’t without ripping open the box.
- The best toys for kids of all ages