Licensing Expo: Fun and Games in 3-D from Las Vegas

How Brands Are Toying Around in a More Sophisticated Third Dimension

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3DPlusMe had a booth at the Licensing Expo, where it demonstrated its mobile 3-D face scanning and 3-D printing technology, which allows users to create personalized action figures.
3DPlusMe had a booth at the Licensing Expo, where it demonstrated its mobile 3-D face scanning and 3-D printing technology, which allows users to create personalized action figures. 

Last year, 3-D printing made its presence known at the Licensing Expo, with brands such as Coca-Cola and celebrity teaming with 3D Systems to get in on the action. MakerBot was also on hand, printing 3-D images that stemmed from its licensing agreement with "Pretty Ugly." Neither 3D Systems nor MakerBot is represented at the Expo this year. However, while the number of 3-D companies present on the show floor may have declined, the level of 3-D printing sophistication on display is awe-inspiring. We all need to be watching this disruptive space very carefully.

I stopped by the 3DPlusMe booth, located on the outskirts of the show floor. This company combines mobile 3-D face scanning with 3-D printing to deliver personalized merchandise through its licensing agreements with brands including Marvel and Hasbro -- literally turning consumers into their favorite superheroes in action-figure form. What makes this product so impactful from a brand licensing perspective is its ability to connect with consumers to help make their dreams of becoming a superhero (or at least a toy-sized version) a reality. For now, the printing machines are large and need to find venues -- such as theme parks and hotels -- but this will change as the technology evolves.

I also had the opportunity to chat with Source3. Source3 provides a one-stop enterprise licensing and rights management platform, which ultimately allows consumers to order 3-D printed products, authorized by the IP owner, from 3-D marketplaces (such as Shapeways and Amazon). This is an incredibly smart and sophisticated technology that aims to solve potential IP issues that could arise in the nascent 3-D printing space.

Technology continues to blur the lines between the real world and the digital realm, as evidenced by the proliferation of the "toys-to-life" trend. This movement began in 2011 with Activision's "Skylanders" -- a console game that interacts with a peripheral called the "Portal of Power." When players place special action figures or vehicles on the portal, they appear in the game onscreen. In 2013, Disney entered the arena in a similar fashion with the launch of "Disney Infinity," which uses figurines that sync with the game and interact with the storyline.

While exciting, the market has yet to find stability. According to a recent report from NPD Group, toys-to-life sales grew by only 2% between March 2014 and March 2015. In contrast, the market grew by 45% over the prior year. However, toys-to-life still represented about 10% of all software and accessory sales in the U.S. over the last year, and here at the show we're seeing signs that this space is growing.

I stopped by the Activision booth for a glimpse of its latest offering in the "Skylanders" product line: SuperChargers. SuperChargers represents Skylanders' first real foray into vehicles, which work with special characters. Some analysts view SuperChargers as a way for the brand to retain market share against competitors in the space.

Disney also recently announced its next evolution of products within the toys-to-life category for later this year: the Playmation line. Disney has a closed meeting area instead of a booth at the Expo, so I'm not certain if the new toys were on display -- although they were certainly talked about on the show floor. These new connected toys feature action figures from popular franchises, including "Avengers" and "Star Wars," which interact directly with wearable technology -- an "Iron Man" gauntlet, for example. This is brand extension for a new digital age.

Playmation allows kids to immerse themselves in a game by interacting with real-life toys, creating and playing without being tethered to a game console. Parents might find some satisfaction in watching their kids engaged in more active play, moving around the room and not just sitting as they watch their screens. Unquestionably, we can expect continued innovation. It will be exciting to watch this category evolve to potentially include multiplayer experiences, with head-to-head missions led by kids in different geographic locations.

On a separate, but related technology note: I was quite surprised that wearable tech and peripherals had little to no presence at the Expo this year. On the heels of the Apple Watch launch, and a flurry of recent licensing activity as brands seek to connect with consumers through wearable technology, one would have thought that we would see a surge in new products and licensing opportunities at the show. Maybe next year. Time will tell (pun intended).

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