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Kids play with iPads. Kids play with toys. Why not combine them? In fact, a lot of companies already do. Osmo, an accessory and toy startup, has created a clever way to combine toys, learning tools, and even real-life objects with the iPad's display: by bending the front-facing camera a bit and creating a few augmented reality tricks.
Osmo is a kit: for $99 (or $49 right now for pre-orders, which converts to £28 and AU$52; shipping outside the US tacks on an extra £15/AU$27.70), you get an iPad stand, a special mirror attachment that fits over the iPad's front camera, and two toy kits: a wooden Tangram set and a set of colorful letter tiles.
Any iPad except the original fits in the stand vertically and works with Osmo: iPad 2, 3, 4, Air, Mini, or Retina Mini are all compatible. Slip the red mirror over the lens, and download a few free Osmo game apps from the App Store, and you're set.
The basic stand and mirror accessories are actually pretty basic: cleanly made, yet simple. It's the software that Osmo uses -- and the extra gaming accessories that work with it -- that make it do its fun things. Because the Osmo stand and mirror are only two compact pieces, everything packs flat.
There are only three games to play with Osmo at the moment: Newton, Tangram, and Words. All three come with the pre-order package, which currently ships in October, and early adopters are promised two years of future game apps for free. Others might not be so lucky. And that's the big question: for an expensive $50 (or more), how much can Osmo really do?
I got a chance to play with an early pre-release set, so I'll tell you.
In Newton, you actually use any piece of paper and a pen (or crayon, or pencil) to draw lines and pictures. The app scans what you're drawing and adds it to a kinetic game: lines become ramps for bouncing balls so they can hit targets. The game-app actually turns any objects into line-drawings: my hand turned into line animation straight out of an A-ha video. What you do, basically, is solve 60 different kinectic ball-puzzle games by drawing lines. Fun, but you could do similar stuff just by drawing with your finger on an iPad's screen.
In Tangram, a basic tangram set can be assembled into a number of picture puzzles. But, the app also cleverly follows along, shows what pieces are laid down correctly, and congratulates you when you're finished. Extra challenges and puzzles get unlocked as you play. The tangram pieces are colorful painted wood, and are like any standard set you'd buy at a toy store. But the app's approach feels too much like paint-by-numbers, as our photo editor, Sarah Tew, said. It's helpful as a tutorial, but too simplistic for older, smarter kids.
Words, the best of the Osmo app games, is like a high-tech version of Hangman. It uses a set of included thick cardboard letter tiles, which Osmo instantly recognizes the moment you drop them down on the surface in front of your iPad no matter which way they're rotated. Two players use separate sets of red and blue letter tiles, and throw letters down to guess at a mystery word hinted at by a picture, Hangman-style. Each player earns points for correct guesses, and you can play either cooperatively or competitively: this was the most exciting game of the bunch, and I actually had fun playing a bunch of fast rounds with Joseph Kaminski here in the CNET lab.
How is it with kids? Well, I know my kids would have fun for a while, but I question the idea of Osmo's "real things, but with an iPad" philosophy. I have my five-year-old use my iPad, but it counts as his limited screen time. When I want him to play with real-world things, why have an iPad intervene at all? You can play with tangrams, word puzzles, and draw pictures with no electronics at all and have a perfectly great time doing it. In fact, it's a better experience. Osmo's overly-helpful suggestions while playing Tangrams might make sense for an extremely young child, but it's too much hand-holding.
Osmo's clever bend-the-front-camera mirror seems like a smart approach for future board games to take advantage of the iPad for scoring or other interactions, but at the moment, it's not enough. For $20, I might buy it. But it's too much of an oddball accessory for anyone else. It is fun to play with, though -- just not for a long period of time.