Herokins is a new line of wearable smart toys that’s designed to facilitate learning and strengthen family bonds. You get a small, plastic hero on a watch strap that your child can wear, and it works via Bluetooth with a companion app on your smartphone or tablet.
First, kids choose between two characters named Axel McRed or Dr. Rose. Then, they play through animated, comic book-style adventures that are supposed to impart vital life lessons, like the importance of wearing a seat belt, or putting your floats on when you go swimming.
It’s aimed at kids in the 3-to-6-year-old age group. I just happen to have one kid at each end of that age spectrum, so I tried out the prototype with my 3 year-old daughter and 6 year-old son. It went down rather well.
Getting started is easy
The set up is a breeze. You start by downloading the app for Android or iOS and installing it, ideally on a tablet, though it does work on smartphones, too. Turn on Bluetooth, and start up the app. Open up your Herokin, strap it onto your child’s wrist, and press the button on its belt. This pairs it with your tablet. Now you can begin to play through some adventures.
The idea of technology that can teach your children and bring families closer together is very appealing, but it’s easier said than done.
There were only three adventures, or Story Quests, available on the prototype, but the company behind it, Little Heroes Technologies, is still producing content. Founder and CEO, Paolo Debellini, told us it plans to add several more quests before the official retail launch in October, and the company will continue to release them after that.
The McRed on my son’s wrist talked to him as we tapped on the screen to launch the first Story Quest, introducing himself and asking my son’s name. Kids at that age are quick to suspend disbelief, and both my children answered Axel McRed right away and agreed to be his friend.
Interactive stories make learning fun
The Story Quests play out like animated comics. Each tap brings up a new screen with background sounds and sometimes music. You are supposed to read the on-screen text and speech to your kids as you go. At various points the wrist-worn McRed pipes up with some relevant dialogue. In the first one, General Grey and his clones steal an energy ball, but they can’t get it to work. You and your child have to press your fingers on the screen together to power it up and save Synapse City.
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In the next story, General Grey steals some kid’s floaties (he’s a nasty piece of work), and we have to get McRed’s attention so he can race to the rescue. You clap hands to get his attention, and then call for help when one of the kids gets hit by a big wave. Naturally, McRed saves the day and issues new floaties.
The last story was the best. It focused on road safety, so a blob named Tiny was nearly run over by General Grey, and McRed had to save him. There’s an interactive prompt where you have to tell your child to hide from General Grey, which they loved. For the final chase General Grey refuses to wear his seat belt, and you can probably guess what happens next.
The lessons here aren’t too heavy-handed, but they do offer a focal point for parental discussions about why wearing a seat belt in the car or floats when you go swimming is a good idea. The story format definitely helps kids to grasp ideas more quickly than if you just try to give them a set of rules.
Future stories Little Heroes has in the works will cover everything from brushing your teeth and going to bed, to the fear of being alone and bullying. The possibilities are endless. Debellini also told us that the company wants to introduce an element of choice, so some of the problems kids encounter may have more than one solution, and the stories will go in different directions based on how children react to them.
The technical part of the wearable
The wearable itself is about 1.5 inches tall, slightly less across, and just over half-an-inch thick. It comes with a watch strap to fit onto your child’s wrist, so they can wear it during the Story Quests. The device has proximity and movement sensors inside that make the interactive portions of the story work. The Herokin can tell when your child runs away, claps their hands, or jumps up and down.
The Story Quests play out like animated comics.
The character on the wrist band also has a speaker, so it can talk to your child with supporting dialogue, and the final version will have LED lights too. Debellini told us the company’s also working on some kind of cradle, so it can be removed from the strap and kids can play with it like any other toy. At the moment, the Herokin doesn’t really do much when it’s not connected to the companion app, but the company is considering ways it might reinforce the lessons by talking to your child later or reacting to play.
You should get around two weeks of use out of the device between charges. It connects to the app via Bluetooth LE (Low Energy), and there’s a Micro USB port under a flap on the bottom of the character that will take any standard Micro USB charging cable.
It has to be fun for kids
Both my kids wanted to play through the stories again immediately after we finished. This is testament to the quality of the design. The characters are quite appealing; the cast are friendly-looking blobs in bright colors; the baddies are grey and angry-looking. The comic books are well-drawn and animated, and the adventures are fairly short, with interactive elements that encouraged the kids to get involved.
The idea of technology that can teach your children and bring families closer together is very appealing, but it’s easier said than done. Too often the reality is quite boring. Kids can be fickle and difficult to engage. Balancing learning and fun is tricky. Herokins strikes a good balance, but it does require a fair bit of engagement from the parent. You have to direct the action and read parts, it’s not something kids can play with by themselves.
Part of the reason that the design works so well is that Little Heroes collaborated with Professor of cognition and development at the University of Berkeley, Anne Cunningham. She has worked extensively in the ed-tech field with companies like LeapFrog, so she brings a lot of expertise to the table. This isn’t just another toy. It’s supposed to help with your child’s developmental milestones and bring parent and child closer together.
We’ve all heard that kind of hype before, but I have to say in this case it really worked. My kids loved it, we were all engaged in it together, and elements of the action and discussion in the aftermath extended well beyond the on-screen action.
It’s not perfect, but it has potential
For younger kids the bite-sized adventures are probably a good idea, because their attention spans are short. My 3 year-old was excited about it and wanted to go again, but after two play-throughs, my 6 year-old was ready to take it off and go to play with his Legos.
The interactions are also pretty limited. The McRed or Dr. Rose wearables can’t do an awful lot. My son kept pressing the Bluetooth pairing button on McRed’s belt expecting him to react in some way, and he was obviously disappointed when McRed remained mute. Debellini told me this was deliberate, as he didn’t want to encourage frenetic button-pressing and that expectation of an instant reaction.
Taking into account that we were using a prototype, and hearing about some of the plans, the potential of Herokins is really exciting and definitely outweighs its current limitations.
When and where can I buy it?
The Android or iOS app is a free download, and Debellini promised that a number of Story Quests will be added for free, to build a core program that covers the main developmental milestones from ages 3 to 6. But he did also mention the possibility of future episodes as in-app purchases.
The retail price for the official launch in October, when you can expect to see Herokins on Amazon will be $60, and it should pop up in specialty retailers in time for the holiday season.