Osmo is a game system for iPad that uses the tablet’s camera to interact with real-world objects like puzzle pieces or drawings (buy the starter kit for $69). There are several Osmo apps, spanning drawing, literacy, physics puzzles and more. Each one offers a mini ‘augmented reality’ experience where the iPad apps bring the real-world accessories to life.

The basic Osmo system contains a dock/stand for the iPad to sit on and a reflective mirror that attaches to the FaceTime camera. This adjusts the optics so that the camera is essentially recording the table area in front of the iPad, so that the Osmo apps can ‘see’ the objects placed there. Read on for a walkthrough of how well this all works …

Although Osmo wants you to buy its own accessories like building blocks or tangram puzzle pieces, you don’t have to. There is nothing technologically unique about the real-word objects; all of the recognition happens in the iPad app using computer vision algorithms. This is actually an advantage as using the product does not introduce any new stuff you have to charge: the only electronic thing is the iPad you already own.

The aforementioned dock is important. It is angled specifically for its purpose; it is unlikely that a third-party dock will achieve the same results. The dock claims to fit iPad Air, iPad mini, iPad 2, iPad 3 and iPad 4 (with a version for iPad Pro coming soon). There’s a specially designed insert that can be flipped around to change the grooves as required. However, the Osmo dock is tight-fitting …

Consequently, the iPad cannot be inserted with a case on. This is one of the biggest drawbacks of the Osmo system, personally. It is primarily designed as a toy for young children. It is very common for parents to keep a ‘kid iPad’ safely ensconced in a rugged protective case but this simply will not work with Osmo for 99% of cases and covers. Having to remove and replace the rugged protections every time you want to use the Osmo system is a big inconvenience.

That aside, the Osmo objects are very well made. I tested the drawing kit and it is perfect for children, featuring several ‘chalk’ erasable markers and a brightly-colored soft carry case. The pens are kind of magical in themselves; I’ve never seen them before. They are filled with chalk that you essentially rub against a pad to draw or write with. This is an ideal product for children as it is less messy and – unlike ink pens – they don’t dry out. To start drawing, you have to shake the pens to push the chalk down, and it absorbs into the exposed end which then transfers onto the pad.

Another nice touch for a child-friendly product is that the pencil case doubles up as the cleaning cloth. Just rub it over the included plastic drawing surface to remove the doodles. It’s an infinite-use and easily wipeable whiteboard!

The drawing set is meant to be used with the drawing game called Osmo Monster. The app features a playful monster character called who guides the player through the game. I should probably redefine “game” to mean interactive entertainment here. The Osmo drawing experience is, I would call it an interactive movie.

There are a variety of scenarios that the game can pick and you help the monster through the story-telling by drawing the objects he asks for. At the very start, Mo, the lovable Osmo monster, will say that he is going to do a magic show. He needs a wand to perform the spells and asks the player to draw him a wand.

How does this work? Intuitively. You make sure to have a clean board and sketch out a wand; the app displays an outline of the wand on screen to give you an indication of what shape it is expecting to see drawn. For the wand, it wants a rectangle with a circle/star on the end. Sketch this out on a board, you can use multiple colors if you want, and then wait. The app then scans the board and the monster pulls the wand into his world, he pulls it up and waves it around.

It’s hard not to be impressed the first time this happens, there’s something very magical about pulling a real-world drawing into the iPad screen even for me as an adult. The wand you drew is then used for the rest of the story and Mo will ask for about five more drawings of various animals, instruments and other objects. You can then start over with a new story and new things to draw.

The whole thing is very cute. The monster is 3D animated the whole way through and is narrated with upbeat voice-acting and accompanied by pleasing music. At the end of the show, all of the drawn items are displayed in a blockbuster finale. It is then saved to a gallery, so you can rewatch the whole thing through incorporating all the drawings. This is great if you set a child off and then leave them alone to complete the game, because then afterwards you can both review it together for a shared experience.

On that last point, it’s hard for me to judge if this game is simple enough for a child to be left to their own devices. My feeling is this would have to be a parent-assisted activity for any child under 8 as it does require some patience and listening to the instructions. I think if you just left a primary school child alone with it, they wouldn’t understand what they have to do unless they had seen it before. They would certainly get enjoyment out of it, no question, but it requires a degree of parental oversight.

I had few complaints with the app; it’s nicely laid out and straightforward to operate. It’s annoying that there is not a way to redo a drawing though. I found that my sister wanted to scrap ‘her’ wand after it had been pulled up into the game. The app copied her drawing perfectly but she just changed her mind about what she wanted once it was on the screen. Unfortunately, there is no partial undo or option to go back a step. You can reset the whole thing from the beginning though.

Some of the objects I got asked to draw felt inappropriate with the set of six chalk pens that are provided. At one point, I was asked to draw a picture of my “best friend”. Not only I am bad at drawing, I failed to compose little more than a stick man or smiley face with the drawing implements. The pens are good for quick doodles and sketches; being asked to draw a person is impractical. I think a young player could be discouraged by this barrier and feel like they have ‘failed’. Most of the time, the app asks for well-known simple-shaped objects and landmarks, so this isn’t a common issue.

Longevity on this particular app is another question. As everything is acted and narrated, there is not an infinite number of different scenarios you can play. Of course you can replay the stories you have already done, but there’s a decent number of unique play-throughs to do.

That being said, young children can play the same thing over and over and over … and still enjoy it. I think the playtime on offer here is decent. Luckily, Osmo isn’t limited to just this single app. There are many uses for the Osmo camera system. Some of these require additional purchases of course if you don’t have a set of puzzles pieces to spare.

There is the Newton set which is all about physics. Balls fall from the top of the screen and you can move rulers and draw lines on a piece of paper to control the direction of the digital balls into a target location. The Physics app is fun and doesn’t reqiure any additional purchases if you bought the Osmo Monster package. Just use the Creative Board to draw ledges and platforms in the real world that are then used in the game.

The Masterpiece set is meant for a slightly older age range, I think. You can choose an image from a gallery or from the web and it uses edge-detection to create a wirey visualization. Using real-world pens or pencils, you can then use the on-screen copy as a guide and trace the drawing. It reminded me of the kids toys that use mirrors to clone sketches. It works well though. There’s also a tangram puzzle set, a word set for spelling and language, and a numbers set to learn simple arithmetic.

What’s also nice is that because the Osmo relies so heavily on the apps, theoretically the makers can add more to all of these games from the software side. A few more puzzles, a new physics mode, etcetera. They are surely going to keep releasing new packs with new accessories so if you like what you get at first, you will be able to buy more in the future and widen the ecosystem.

Just focusing on what exists today, Osmo is a really nice game that will keep kids (and adults) playing for hours. The Osmo game system is available for $69. The Creative Set is an additional $50 and includes the pad and pens for the Monster, Newton and Masterpiece games. It is very fun and my only real complaint was the case incompatibility issue mentioned above. Find out about the full range of Osmo products on their website.