Mattel’s new Pictionary has us drawing in the air with AR

This is not your typical augmented reality game.

Bridget Carey Principal Video Producer
Bridget Carey is an award-winning reporter who helps you level-up your life -- while having a good time geeking out. Her exclusive CNET videos get you behind the scenes as she covers new trends, experiences and quirky gadgets. Her weekly video show, "One More Thing," explores what's new in the world of Apple and what's to come. She started as a reporter at The Miami Herald with syndicated newspaper columns for product reviews and social media advice. Now she's a mom who also stays on top of toy industry trends and robots. (Kids love robots.)
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  • Bridget has spent over 18 years as a consumer tech reporter, hosting daily tech news shows and writing syndicated newspaper columns. She's often a guest on national radio and television stations, including ABC, CBS, CNBC and NBC.
Bridget Carey
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Pictionary Air

My secret talent is drawing shower caps in AR.

Joshua Goldman/CNET

I'm moving a glowing stick over my head, trying to draw an imaginary shower cap. I really hope this is coming out like I imagine. Can Scott tell on his screen? He's guessing clouds. No, no, no. I pretend to scrub my armpits. Yes! He got it! 

Playing Pictionary with paper is a thing of the past. Mattel reinvented the classic quick-draw game by using augmented reality, the term used when you blend digital special effects with the real world. This new version is Pictionary Air, and you use a light-up stick as your "pen" to draw doodles in the virtual space around you, while others guess your drawing. 

Watch this: We play Pictionary Air, a refreshing twist on AR games

The challenge is a bit different this time: You can't see your sketch. It's only visible with an app. 

The game is scheduled to come out in June for about $20, and I got to play an early preview with my colleague Scott Stein. It was pretty addictive -- and equally important to note, it was simple enough for anyone to play.

Mattel is one of several toymakers tinkering with new ways that augmented reality and smartphone tech can enhance physical toys and games, with new concepts being showcased this weekend at the annual New York Toy Fair.

"It's very different than what we've done in the past," said Sven Gerjets, Mattel's chief technology officer. He's leading a new approach Mattel is taking to weave tech into toys. He calls it "mixed play" -- rather than have a kid stare at a screen, use the tech to get folks off the couch and encourage physical play.

Pictionary Air

No internet connection needed. No syncing anything. Just a box of cards, an app, and the light wand is all you need to play. 

Joshua Goldman/CNET

The light-up "pen" itself is pretty low tech. Press the button to draw in the air, and the light changes from red to green. The app is using image recognition to record the path of the green light, creating lines that appear on the screen.

There's no internet connection needed to play. No syncing anything. That means you can pick it up and play it anywhere. (As long as you have a compatible Android or Apple mobile device.)

Without paper, these virtual drawings open up a new approach to playing. You can act out your drawing to get the point across. Why just draw corn when you can draw a whole cob floating in front of you and pretend to eat it?

Pictionary Air

I still feel bad I couldn't guess Scott's radish. It was a pretty good radish.

Joshua Goldman/CNET

When I had to illustrate Pinocchio, I gave myself a stick nose and pretended to be a marionette. It's a refreshing twist on AR to see it used in a party-style game. (And of course there's an option to save those really funny moments on video to share on social media.)

Toymakers often struggle with finding the right balance to incorporating tech that gets kids excited, while also not pushing away parents who are wary of data collection and want to limit screen time. 

"A few years back, it felt like everyone was trying to shove the iPhone or smartphones into their toys. It didn't really work well to be honest," said Juli Lennett, a US toys industry advisor for NPD. "It didn't really make toys better or enhance them in such a way where you had to have it."

Toy Fair 2019: Nerf Fortnite, Barbie turns 60 and more

See all photos

But there's something different this time. The success of AR games like Pokemon Go , along with advances in augmented reality tech in phones, offer new incentives to experiment.

Later this year, Lego will sell an AR construction set called Lego: Hidden Side. Snap the traditional bricks together to build a haunted world. Get out your phone and load the app for a game that has you catching the ghosts lurking among the bricks.

Watch this: Lego Hidden Side feels like an augmented reality haunted house

A few smaller companies are using AR to add pizazz to educational toys. Take, for example PaiBotz, a new robot construction set coming out in the spring. Four-year-olds will snap bricks together to build motorized creatures packed with sensors and lights. But the app is where kids learn to code their creations, solving puzzles that appear as AR animations around the robot.


PaiBotz is a robot construction set for ages four and up, coming out in the spring. It uses AR activities to teach coding.

Pai Technologies

"Ultimately, we use the AR to bring the storytelling to life," said Amy Braun, director of marketing for Pai Technology who formerly worked with Mattel. "I think the industry really is evolving and understanding more the value of technology ... it doesn't just replace traditional physical play."

But what technology will change toys next? Will it be tied to voice recognition and smart speakers? Something that's controlled by gestures? Biometric sensors?

Mattel's Gerjets offered only a small tease to what his team is cooking up next.

"We got one product that uses NFC technology to really create what we think mixed play is going to be, " he said. "I think it's the coolest thing I've ever done in my career."

In the meantime, I'll keep working on my invisible AR doodles. Pictionary Air hits Target stores this June and will be available worldwide in multiple languages in July.