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digitalia: ratings and ravings

Thanks in large part to technology, new toys are increasingly complex. They are, in fact, far closer to their adult counterparts than ever before. Where is this most evident? With playthings that imitate gizmos of the adult world...
January 1, 2000

Thanks in large part to technology, new toys are increasingly complex. They are, in fact, far closer to their adult counterparts than ever before. Where is this most evident? With playthings that imitate gizmos of the adult world

Computers, PDAs (personal digital assistants), pagers, cell phones, cameras-these are all toys that typically litter adult environments. But while consumers don’t have to look very far to find kid versions of the same, most of the products to date have been more show than go with plenty of bells and whistles, but none of the functionality. Take, for example, Mattel’s Call-Back phone-the cell phone that ‘looks and feels like the real thing’ with realistic tones and flip-phone action, but ultimately a toy where calls just aren’t going to happen. Admittedly, it is for the young set (ages three and up), so not much is to be expected. But push the age spectrum just a tad, and a new world of highly functional, adult-derived products are appearing for kids ages seven and up.

Wheeling, Illinois-based VTech’s Power Zone 2000 is a mini-desktop that is e-mail compatible, has a wireless keyboard, and comes with 77 learning activities based on math, languages and logic, as well as homework labs and a word processor. Retailing for US$159.99, it’s inexpensive enough for parents to consider, and frenetic enough to keep kids engaged.

VTech’s IMprompt2 is an e-mail device that combines traditional e-mail and wireless messaging. Targeted at teens, it allows users to receive instant mail notification; daily news, weather, entertainment and sports are of course a bonus. The IMprompt2 launches in first quarter 2000 and will retail for under US$200.

Also on the table is Jelly Bean’s kids digital answering machine (US$24.99, already available). Targeted at a more mature crowd (13 and up), it’s marketed as ‘definitely not your mother’s answering machine!’ and features ‘a futuristic,’ see-through, electric blue shell, digital display, remote operation and 14-

minute recording capacity-just what kids on the go need to stay in touch.

Just a few years ago limited to professionals, digital photography is now readily available to the six and up set. The WWF Slam Cam (US$69.99) lets young Spielbergs put themselves into WWF action scenes and create fan IDs, slide shows and collages of super-hot WWF properties. The technology allows the

combination of digital photos taken by

the kids with 35 images of their favorite stars and more than 100 other photos. Nickelodeon has a similar product in its Nick Click, which comes with Directors’ Studio software. This is fresh because kids can string together both pictures and sounds to make ‘digital movies’ (US$69.99, ages six to 15).

All of these products give kids access to devices to call their own. They are items kids can turn on and off as they see fit, and drag around without parents having to worry about them destroying something or accidentally deleting everything from the hard drive. Additionally, because they are not quite full-blown versions of their adult contemporaries, they are still largely perceived as toys. The Power Zone 2000, for example, is laden with big blocky letters, one-color graphics and sound quality that pales in comparison to home computers and CD-ROM offerings, making it decidedly low-tech.

Competing against offerings like Gameboy and Pokémon is no easy task, but the trickle-down of technology to these types of products means that they will only continue to improve and captivate. Awful presentation or not, for now, they still keep children engaged. That being said, Hasbro is cutting 2,200 jobs and closing two plants to cut costs and shift its focus to software and other electronic toys. Why? Because of lagging demand for traditional toys. That’s got to tell you something.

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