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Disney announced a new toy line Tuesday that turns the iPad into an interactive play mat. The new toys, called Disney Appmates, interact directly with a free app for the iPad that brings them to life.

The first toys in the Appmates series are from Pixar’s Cars. Twin packs of toy autos — each representing a character from the popular film series — will be available in stores for about $20.

In addition to the excellent video demo (above), we’ve had a chance to play with the product. Sunny Lauridsen, director of digital toys at Disney Consumer Products gave us a hands-on demo of the toys and app in action. After playing with the Appmates themselves, we were bowled over by the ingenuity — and by how fun they were.

How it works

Each plastic car has specially designed capacitive sensors on the bottom. Once placed on the iPad, these sensors provide the app with information about what character the car represents (each pattern of sensors slightly different) and where it is on the screen.

The app then adjusts itself to match the position of the car and to speak and interact with the character. The voices from Cars and Cars 2 are a nice touch. Kids can freely explore the area around Radiator Springs and Route 66 during the day and at night.

In addition to a free play mode, kids can also compete in races and complete missions. This earns them coins that outfit their cars with power-ups, special tires and different kinds of fuel. The coins are virtual only — no in-app purchase or real currency exchange takes place — and Disney tells us it is still exploring how it might offer add-on levels or additional items.

I was shocked by just how well the toys work with the iPad. Fundamentally, however, the coolest part of the toys is that they assimilate so well with how kids actually play. Rather than trying to re-create a new paradigm, Disney has just given the experience a digital boost.

The big question is: Won’t the toys break the screen? In my experience, it would be difficult (though not impossible) for the toys to inflict any substantial damage to the iPad’s glass. The sensors are designed not to scratch the surface and the toys are lightweight enough that excessive pounding shouldn’t inflict much damage. Still, this is probably a good opportunity to explain to your kids how to best take care of electronics.

Why the iPad?

We could have designed our own tablet — and in fact that’s something we actually considered doing,” Lauridsen says. “After the iPad was released, we looked at its success in the market — especially with families — and decided not to reinvent the wheel and instead focus on creating toys for the existing platform.” As a strategy, this makes sense. Since its release in April 2010, the iPad has proven to be as popular with kids as it is with adults.

Disney already has a successful presence on the iPhone and iPad, and the Appmates series of toys will just continue to build on that. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Steve Jobs, Apple’s chairman, is a member of the Disney board of directors and its single largest shareholder.

The initial release of the Cars Appmates app will only work with the iPad 2, because of the processor and memory requirements for the app. Future releases, however, will work with the iPad 1 as well.

Apple retail stores and will be selling their own exclusive two-pack of Appmates in stores this October. Disney tells us that in the future, other Disney franchises will also get the Appmates treatment.

Frankly, toys like this make me wish I was a kid again.


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