What We Think About Lego's New Hidden Side AR Range

By Tom Pritchard and Kim Snaith on at

Initially announced back in February, today is the day that Lego’s new augmented reality-powered ‘Hidden Side’ range hits shop shelves. In case you forgot what that was all about, the premise is pretty simple: Lego has released a range of real, buildable sets, but it just so happens that they can connect with a free augmented reality app.

The idea is that this system opens up a new way for kids to play and interact with their Lego sets, beyond just building and playing the same way kids have done for decades. Each set connects with the app, and through it you can play with the set digitally - battling ghosts and helping to stop them taking over the town of Newbury. The fictional Newbury, not the town in Berkshire.

It’s the first time Lego has attempted to mix physical and digital playtime together, so Kim and Tom got their hands on a couple of sets to see just how well it all works.

Kim: The set I got my hands on is the 'Wrecked Shrimp Boat'. By itself it’s a pretty nice looking set – it’s fairly small at 310 pieces but for £25, it feels like decent value. The boat itself is nice to look at (it’ll look very nice stood next to my Old Fishing Store!), and even before we even get to the app there’s some really cool play elements: the boat can be taken apart into two pieces, and essentially “shipwrecked” onto a rock structure. That rock structure has a hidden monster face in it, which makes a nice touch.

Tom: I got the ‘Graveyard Mystery’ set which is the same £25 for 335 pieces -which is probably about right for any Lego set of this size. I wouldn’t say it looks quite as nice as the shrimp boat, but it’s still pretty nice. The haunted tree is a nice touch since it can wave its arms around, and I can see the graves working quite well with the physical side of play. After all the Skeleton minifig has to go somewhere.

It’s also not as versatile since everything is connected, but it’ll do.

Kim: Obviously though, the unique selling point of the Hidden Side sets is the AR app, that can essentially “bring them to life”. Now, Tom and I might not exactly be the target audience for this app – it’s clearly aimed at kids – but we took it for a spin all the same.

Exactly how much fun you can have with the app is pretty limited if you only have one set. It’s very much geared towards having access to more than one Hidden Side Lego set. Essentially, you’ll scan your set into the app, and certain parts of it will become interactable. On my ship, there was a wheel to spin, with four different-coloured pieces. The app would recognise what colour was selected, and that would allow me to then ‘scan’ the environment for ‘gloom’ – which I’d then have to clear. You’re rewarded various in-game collectibles for playing through the short minigame, and while you can play it multiple times, it’s going to get old really fast if you only have one set.

Tom: Yeah I’d say it’s definitely designed to make you want to go out and buy more of the sets. The app itself may not have any in-app purchases, but it’s going to get quite boring if you only have one or two sets. You have to have the physical set in front of you for the main ghost-hunting bit, and the Haunting mode only works on the sets you’ve scanned in. I suppose it could help encourage kids to play with their friends in that way, but I imagine it’ll get a bit grindy as you try and earn enough points to upgrade your stuff.

Kim: Yeah, it’s a neat concept, and one I can imagine lots of kids grabbing their friends for, saying “look what my new Lego set can do!”, but even for the youngest, most enthusiastic kid, I can imagine it’s going to lose its appeal quickly. I’m not sure how parents are going to feel about being pestered to buy new sets because Little Tommy needs to collect more ghosts in his app, either.

Tom: Lego told me back when it was announced that there are plans for more sets beyond what I saw (some are already available), which is bound to help things out a bit, but there’s also the issue that the price-range is quite large. The cheapest set is £18, and the most expensive is £110. I remember asking for a Lego set that was £55 one Christmas and was told it was too expensive - I can see a lot of parents doing the same.

Kim: Yes, that’s a good point - the app itself refers to these as “series one” sets, so it’ll be interesting to see what comes next. For me though, as a, ahem, “Adult Fan of Lego”, the app isn’t going to sell these sets to me – but they’re different and interesting enough as builds that I’m still interested in picking up some more. The school bus looks great (I’ve been saying Lego needs a school bus for ages, so I’ll take one that’s possessed by demons), as does the school. One of my favourite bygone Lego ranges is the Monster Fighters series from a few years ago, and while it’s not quite the same, it feels like a spiritual successor to that. A touch of ghosts ‘n’ ghoulies in Lego is always welcome.

Tom: I think the app is a nice bonus. It’s not something I would religiously play, and it’s not going to make me buy every single set, but I might sit down and have a go when I’m bored - especially the Ghost mode which doesn’t require an internet connection or force you to have the sets around. The only downside to that is you can’t unlock new levels without having scanned the set first, so it’s still limited to what you’re willing to buy.

Kim: Yeah, the Ghost mode *could* be pretty fun. I found the controls abysmal though, but I suppose you’ll soon get used to it. Such is the nature of mobile gaming! It’s certainly a good idea though, and adds a bit of longevity to the games on offer.

Tom: I do wonder whether you could cheat and scan the sets on display in toy shops, especially since Lego likes to display the more extravagant sets like the haunted school.

Kim: Ooh, now there’s an idea…

Tom: It’s no good for the Hunter mode, but for Ghost mode? It could work if buying the sets is out of the question.

Kim: I also want to mention just how lovely the minifigures are - at least in the Shrimp Boat set! It comes with four (and a ghost dog and crocodile!), which for a £25 set is a decent amount, and they’re very different to any minifigs we’ve seen before. Of the two fishermen included, one has an alternate head and some tentacles to essentially turn him into a possessed Davy Jones type. And the two ghost hunters included are brilliant: one’s got a moulded cap and hood in place of hair, and the other has a beanie hat and purple locks. They’re definitely eye-catching.

Tom: I like the minfigs too, especially the fact you have regular and possessed people with swappable parts. It’s a shame the possession pieces don’t glow in the dark, but it’s a nice little touch. Apparently this is all done so that kids still have villains to play with, since the ghosts can only be seen and interacted with through the app.

Kim: I never even considered that they should glow in the dark, but now you’ve mentioned that, I’m disappointed.

Tom: The graveyard comes with a groundskeeper who isn’t quite as extravagant as the fisherman, since he doesn’t have tentacles, but he does have a spooky quiff.

The downside is that the sets seem to all come with the main characters (and the ghost dog, apparently) so anyone who buys multiple sets is going to end up with a lot of extra minifigs lying around.

Kim: Glancing at the pack shots for the other sets, it looks like they at least have different expressions in some of the sets, so that’s something. It’s a bit of an oversight though - more team members would have been nice so different sets could’ve had different characters.

Tom: Well there’s the scientist as well, who pops up a couple of times, but yeah it’s an odd choice. Different outfits would have been nice, though maybe someone decided it was better to have duplicates because kids are so careless with their toys. I know I was.

Kim: That is true, and at least by buying multiple sets you can amass an army of ghost dogs, and who wouldn’t want that?

Tom: The skeleton in the graveyard might have some words to say about that.

Tom: I guess we should talk about the AR, since that can be a bit sketchy in some other places. Remember Pokémon Go?

Kim: Urgh. I never used the AR in Pokémon Go. It was too annoying.

Tom: Nobody did, total waste of battery, but with Hidden Side it’s kind of a necessary thing. Thankfully it’s not absolute garbage.

Kim: It worked quite nicely for me. The app reminded me to be in a “well lit area” - and even playing towards the end of the evening when it was starting to get a bit dull outside, it worked fine. Thanks, Google Pixel!

Tom: I had no issues, though I did tend to gravitate myself too far from the sets. You do have to be quite close for it to register, and you can’t really have the whole set on screen I found.

Kim: Yeah, that’s a good point. It can be quite awkward to angle your phone to where it needs to be to clearly see the action.

Tom: And it can be a bit fiddly to fire at the ghost and stay within range. Not impossible, but not great. It could just be that I was sitting at my desk on a chair that isn’t very high, while Lego assumes kids will be sitting next to their sets on the floor or something.

Kim: I also think it’s a bit of a shame there wasn’t more interactive elements on the boat itself (although perhaps there is on the bigger sets?). I could scan the minifigures, and the coloured wheel I mentioned before. To see more parts of the set ‘come to life’ would have been nice.

Tom: I agree with you there. The graveyard has a spinning dial underneath the emo angel statue, but that was about it. The graves might have opened up, and the tree does wave its arms around, but they don’t do anything in the app itself. That’s just for you to play with, and that feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. As we mentioned before, that one dial is going to get repetitive.

Kim: Overall though, I think the idea and the technology behind it is sound. It’s always exciting to see Lego try something new, and I’m interested to see where they’ll go next with this. There’s obviously a lot of scope to incorporate the same kind of technology into other sets and other themes, so if Hidden Side does well I’ve no doubt we’ll see it implemented elsewhere.

Tom: True. Kids these days can and do play on their phones, and while Lego seems as popular as ever (no doubt helped by adult nerds like us buying expensive licensed stuff) you can understand why they want to play with this sort of thing. It’s a nice change though, since Lego abandoned in-house digital work around 2000/2001 because it was causing them to lose too much money.

If it goes expand, I just wonder how it will work. Will there be more AR-ready themes with similar apps? Or will new sets be released with some AR features to enjoy - like the ones shown off at WWDC last year.

Kim: Perhaps both? Who knows. There’s already a tonne of Lego-branded apps available on mobile so I reckon we’ll see more to come with some kind of AR integration. I’d imagine more of the kid-friendly ranges will see some kind of interactivity introduced soon - the likes of Ninjago, Friends, etc. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see - but I’ll be happy to tinker with whatever Lego throws our way.

Tom: It’ll probably be a slow process, though. I imagine we may see Hidden Sides series 2 before we see proper AR integration of this type on other themes. Or who knows, maybe I’m wrong and they’re already working on something to show off in a year or so.

Lego’s Hidden Side range releases to everyone today, and should be available in most shops where Lego is sold. That includes the official Lego stores, and the Lego website.