Lego. Picture: Supplied
Lego. Picture: Supplied

Children today seem to spend their lives glued to some screen or another, rebelling against the age-old belief that childhood should be about physical play, imbued with imagination.

But besides the lack of scraped knees — and probable decrease in iodine sales — the manifestations of this shift are most clear in the increasingly diverse avenues toy companies are pursuing to stay relevant.

Beloved toy company Lego, for example, is no longer content to be associated just with pieces of plastic to be trodden underfoot in the middle of the night.

The 87-year-old plastic brick company has spawned a media empire that rakes in billions of Danish kroner by bringing those toys to life.

One of its more successful iterations has been in gaming. Twenty-two years ago, Lego released its first worldwide PC game, Lego Island. It allowed you, as "Pepper Roni", to explore the island and "build" your own adventure — or, unsurprisingly given your character’s name, deliver pizzas. It was the perfect amalgamation of 1990s youth pop culture at the height of the CD-ROM gaming craze, and would be the first of 72 video games the company would release.

But the two worlds of play remained separate. You either built a game yourself, brick by brick in real time, or there was a story presented to you on a screen. Until now. As of August 1, the company has blurred those lines.

Hidden Side, Lego’s new play-set series, is a collection of eight locations in the imaginary town of Newbury that come to life thanks to seamlessly integrated augmented reality (AR). The sets marry physical construction with an AR app, allowing Hidden Side to offer the joy of traditional building while extending play digitally beyond that.

The accompanying AR app reveals that the set you have just built is "haunted". Through the phone’s camera and the app, animation and game prompts swirl around the set, revealing elements of your construction even you didn’t know it possessed.

These "points of possession" unleash play on your screen in two formats: you can be the ghost hunter, or the ghost itself.

To progress in the game, you need to keep one hand in each world, interacting with the physical set and the AR world.

"The Lego group has always been invested in tactile play, but huge leaps in AR technology have meant that the company could create an exciting experience that moves fluidly between physical and digital worlds," says Robert Greenstein, co-founder of the Great Yellow Brick Company, licence holder of SA’s Lego-certified stores.

"These sets offer new ways to enhance Lego play with new action, and master elements, in a new type of creative exploration where the physical world influences the AR layer, rather than the other way around," he adds.

But this is reinvention more by necessity than design. Only two years ago, the Lego group announced its intention to cut 1,400 jobs — about 8% of its workforce — following reduced revenue and profit in the first half of 2017. It was the first time the company had reported such a drop since its 1.4-billion kroner loss in 2003.

CNN attributed the loss to the more competitive environment. Where the company previously had to worry only about traditional competitors such as Mattel and Hasbro, mobile devices had eaten into its bottom line. But the company had also spread itself too thin, trying to do too much, and had to "press the reset button".

Lego isn’t the only company that’s had to rethink its strategy: you can now drive digital Hotwheels across an iPad screen, or pay your Monopoly rent with a credit card.

"We know that kids are going to play with technology, with iPhones and iPads and Android devices," Chuck Scothon, senior vice-president for marketing for Mattel’s North America division, said back in 2012. "Our job is to not necessarily avoid that, but if you can’t fix it, feature it."

Mattel’s Barbie may have been a bit late to that game. Sales for the iconic doll dropped 20% from 2012 to 2014.

But Barbie is still making an effort to step into the tech future. Mattel last year released Robotics Engineer Barbie, dolls across four race groups that come with a laptop and a toy robot. That toy can later be animated online, through six coding classes.

There is also the controversial Hello Barbie, with a built-in microphone and AI bot. The doll can speak to its owner in real time, encouraging conversation as well as play. Hello Barbie has more than 10,000 programmed responses that cover anything from religion and bullying to making friends. The doll’s built-in memory is so accurate she would remember not to mention your dead grandmother a second time.

But it’s a tricky world. Mattel had to withdraw its plans for a Barbie AI speaker — a children’s version of Amazon’s virtual assistant, Alexa — after advocacy groups cried foul. They claimed it violated data privacy laws for children.

But privacy concerns weren’t the only issue.

"My main concern about this technology is the idea that a piece of technology becomes the most responsive household member to a crying child, a child who wants to learn, or a child’s play ideas," paediatrician Jennifer Radesky told The Washington Post.

To be fair, though, that statement says more about adults and our relation to the technological future than it does about Barbie’s desperate attempts to remain relevant in it.