The timing may be coincidental, or there may be some cause and effect link between the spectacular growth of virtual pets and a general increase in the number of toys with high-tech electronics that have made their way into manufacturers’ product lineups.
Whatever the answer, there is little doubt that electronic gadgetry and computer-related play in numerous iterations will be a dominant theme among the toys on retail shelves this fall.
That was certainly the story that emerged from this year’s otherwise relatively subdued American International Toy Fair.
The virtual pet craze that exploded into the North American market over the past two years is just as quickly ‘maturing’ with new lines of pets, some based on licensed characters and many, interestingly, with new lives as well. Rather than having their pets die if not properly cared for, as was common with the first wave of the product, kids can now watch as their digital playmates take on new life stages. That’s just one of the many changes that are taking place in the expanding lines from Playmates’ Nano products, Tiger Electronics’ Giga Pets brand and Bandai’s Tamagotchi.
Bandai, for example, is taking its virtual pet Tamagotchi characters and bringing them to the CD-ROM environment. Characters can now be hatched, raised and trained for battle. Tiger is pushing ahead with licensed virtual pet spin-offs, tieing in to Nickelodeon’s Rugrats characters, Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes and upcoming children’s movies A Bug’s Life and Small Soldiers. Tiger is also taking the concept a big step forward with a product called a Furby that was presented in prototype form at the Toy Fair. The small furry creature is about the size of a baseball with big eyes and an endearing voice. It reacts to touch and sound by blinking and responding vocally to a kid’s caress either through the 100 words of English it knows, or in its own Furbish language.
The marriage of electronics with more conventional toy figures was evident everywhere. OddzOn presented a teddy bear that can respond to children though an LCD screen embedded in its face. Irwin Toys has a line of interactive dolls, one of which reads aloud from a storybook. Mattel has a programmable plush, My Interactive Pooh. Toy Biz has a baby doll that reacts to the food that a child is about to feed it. Microsoft’s ActiMates has gone beyond its original interactive Barney with characters from the Arthur television series that feature new, more fully developed interactivity linking the characters to the computer and the television.
As recently as two years ago, the interactive component in children’s toys had, at best, a tentative quality to it. Diskettes were attached to action figures as a value-added feature. The new media divisions of the big toy manufacturers played a relatively minor role in Toy Fair showrooms, usually presented as the last stop on the media tour.
Now, the new media section is more than just the place of futuristic R&D. It is becoming the home of the more exciting innovation.
Hasbro, for instance, has taken the bridge of a starship and recreated a model that fits onto a computer keyboard. Instead of pressing on a bunch of keys, the child can move the action figures in their chairs, pull on a throttle or fire from a trigger mounted in the play set-which, in turn hit the right keys beneath them-and the child watches the response on a computer screen.
If anything, this melding of computer technology and toy making is surprisingly late in coming. But now that it’s here, the future toy possibilities are as dazzling as the science fiction movies from which most will be derived.