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Uncovering the hidden side of LEGO's new augmented reality set

By Luke Brown
LEGO Hidden Side AR

This year at Toy Fair, LEGO unveiled a number of new licensed and proprietary sets for brands like Toy Story 4, Star Wars, City, and Ninjago. All the new builds looked like a lot of fun, but it was an entirely original creation that caught our eye at the press event this past weekend.

LEGO Hidden Side presents a new world in which the paranormal exists alongside everyday people, and lets the designers get real creative in turning things like schools and buses into fantastical, creepy creations. But the theme isn't the only interesting thing about Hidden Side. This new line also introduces augmented reality into the world of LEGO for the first time.

Developed with children seven and up in mind, Hidden Side brings builders into Newbury, a city that looks just like any other. There are diners and high schools, train stations and buses. When you first see them, the sets that call Newbury home look just like an expansion on LEGO's existing urban collections. When you look a bit closer, you can see mad scientists, possessed mini-figures, and some creepy design decisions. All of that looks cool at first glance, but when you explore these sets within a downloadable app, Hidden Side truly starts to set itself apart from the rest of LEGO's offerings.

LEGO Hidden Side Graveyard

"We tried to co-create with kids when coming up with new worlds and new IPs," said Roberto Marchesi, lead digital creative on LEGO Hidden Side. "This is a theme that resonates really well with them. The paranormal is something that is relevant and that they understand. When you take that theme by itself, and what makes sense for AR play, they really make for a good fit.

"I remember a test where some of the kids were being exposed to the models for the first time, and being told there were no ghosts in the set," he added. "Us adults, we were fretting about that because there were no physical ghost figures, but for the kids, it made perfect sense. 'Of course they are invisible, they are ghosts. Now with the phone I can see them.' Sometimes it's good to see what the kids understand, what makes sense for them, and putting it together that way."

During a brief demonstration of how the augmented reality worked alongside the physical sets, we got a glimpse into the world of Newbury. Through lead characters Jack and Parker, kids will explore the various locations of Hidden Side to uncover the mysteries of this city by the sea. There isn't a direct narrative guiding kids along, as Hidden Side's app in an experience-driven app, not a story-driven one. However, there are numerous contextual clues scattered throughout the sets that give a bit of history of how Newbury got to be such a hotbed for paranormal activity. The ghosts that come "alive" also have character descriptions delivered through the app, which illuminates even more of Newbury's slightly darker side.

While exploring the Graveyard set, we were shown a lot of interactive elements just within the set itself. A large angel tombstone rotates, a big tree shakes its branches menacingly, and tombs open up to reveal hidden treasures. All of those elements allow the sets to maintain playablity beyond the app, but with the AR active, the graveyard becomes home to a menagerie of haunted elements.

The overlay puts some magical graphics on things like that angel tombstone to hint that kids should interact with it. Once they do, a puzzle game begins, asking them to track down various matching elements. Sometimes the app might show one of the mini-figures has become possessed. Kids then have to "save" the person by chasing the ghost around the set, blasting it in a simplistic mini-game that rewards them with in-game bonuses.

"We didn't want to have a really cool game that was working in isolation from the sets," Marchesi said. "We wanted to create a holistic experience with AR, and that's the opportunity we were given to explore. That moment when you see the kids realize they can do more than just tap on the screen, that the set matters too, is really cool.

"I'm curious to see what happens when they put the phone down. That's really interesting for us. We want to see their imaginations come to life when they're playing with the app, but at the same time, it's the roleplay that matters to us. It's what they do with all the tools and ideas we give them."

LEGO Hidden Side High School

Even though the demo was quick, we did get a sense that LEGO put a lot of thought and effort into combining the normal sets with augmented reality. The game and world interacted seamlessly, and response time between the physical and digital was almost instantaneous. Augmented reality games are challenging enough to develop, but crafting one that works on smartphones (from different companies to boot) was especially challenging for the development team at LEGO. Before they could even start working on Hidden Side's specific elements, the creative team first had to figure out what "good" AR even meant.

"When we started this process, we didn't even know what good AR play was because no one had good AR play where you go back and forth between the digital and physical interaction," Marchesi explained. "There was a lot of exploration and learning based on the simple mechanics involved of looking through your phone, taking stock of what you see, and then acting accordingly. What can the kids understand? What can they do?

"Alongside that, we were developing the technology to make it more and more robust, and opening up new opportunities in seeing how much the sets can withstand kid use and play."

LEGO Hidden Side Boat

Across the sets that were on display at Toy Fair, we got a great sense of how interactive they each were. Smaller sets like the Graveyard include some simple elements as we described, but some of the larger sets like the Train and High School bring even more robust transformation elements into play. The train becomes a spectral creature unto itself with the click of a switch, and the school actually evolves into a massive boss as kids explore it. The roof rotates to reveal some Eldrtich elements, the clock flips down to show off creepy eyes, and the front walls turn into claws to attack. LEGO clearly isn't leaving all the excellent interactivity to the app.

With a planned release later this summer, all of the sets should bring some new life to LEGO's already thoughtful creations. Newbury is a clever home to Hidden Side, and the meshing of physical and digital works well within this world. But will things like AR and Hidden Side expand beyond this haunted 'burg?

"It's definitely a good home right now," Marchesi said. "The town of Newbury for us, theme-wise, is grounded in reality which allows us to really push the transformations that ghosts bring when they possess stuff. It's also a town that is fictional, so we can play with it and expand it how we feel by imagining different neighborhoods or visitors to this town. It's a flexible size for us. It doesn't preclude us from going further than the town of Newbury later on, both in this world and somewhere else across the assortment, but for us, this is very much about the paranormal world in Newbury."

LEGO Hidden Side is expected to launch in August 2019, with sets ranging in price from $19.99 to $129.99.

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