High-tech couplings spawn brave new toy wave

Amid the rows of dolls, action figures and vehicles lining the booths at Toy Fair, a new breed of high-tech toys is emerging. Evidenced by the buzz over Intel Play last year, along with healthy sales for the QX3 Computer Microscope...
February 1, 2000

Amid the rows of dolls, action figures and vehicles lining the booths at Toy Fair, a new breed of high-tech toys is emerging. Evidenced by the buzz over Intel Play last year, along with healthy sales for the QX3 Computer Microscope and Me2Cam over the holidays, these are the toys that are getting noticed both on the showroom floor and on shelves.

Now, at the dawn of a new millennium, traditional toycos are clamoring to make alignments with technology and even bio-engineering firms to produce toys that push the boundaries of junior high-tech. Such toys can take a bewildering variety of forms, but a common goal is the development of a toy that can be considered ‘smart.’ These are toys that can ‘learn’ from children through play, or can change into a virtually different toy every day by downloading information from a CD-ROM or the Internet.

‘Downloadability is a really sexy new thing,’ says Dr. Erik Strommen, program manager for research and content at Microsoft’s Interactive Toy Group, which was formed after the former Actimates Division was disbanded (Microsoft is now partnering with individual toy companies and co-branding its toy products). By downloadability, Strommen says he’s referring to toys that can download information from a CD-ROM, the Internet or a television source and thus change their own behavior, in effect creating a new toy every time kids play.

Bandai America has aligned itself with Microsoft to make this happen with a new line of Power Rangers Lightspeed Rescue toys. The toys are based on the series debuting this month on Fox Kids, and some use technology allowing them to be ‘new’ every day.

One such toy is a high-tech update of the existing MegaZord. A MegaZord is made up of individual Zords, which are the Power Rangers’ vehicles, and the new MegaZord robot (which can be taken apart to make five Zord vehicles) will be able to move, speak and interact with the TV. The MegaZord includes a base station, a VCR cable and an AC adapter. When the robot sits in the base station ‘watching’ the new Fox series, it can receive messages sent via non-visible television signals that add movements and phrases to the robot’s repertoire. ‘It will say and do things it wasn’t able to prior to the episode,’ says Brian Goldner, executive VP and COO of Bandai America. The toy is expected to hit shelves July in North America, with plans to introduce it to other Fox Kids territories at a later date. Each enhanced MegaZord will retail for about US$59.99.

The second toy resulting from the Microsoft alliance, the Mega DataZord, is like a virtual MegaZord. Kids will be able to buy individual Power Rangers figures packaged with corresponding CD-ROM Zords, and when they have three or more and download the information from the CD-ROMs onto a PC, they can make a Mega DataZord. Even if they don’t collect three or more, Bandai says the CD-ROMs in the first wave have been programmed to automatically enable the Mega DataZord mode by October 31, 2000 anyway. The DataZords will hit North American shelves in the fall with a US$9.99 SRP for each figure/CD-ROM pack.

Downloadability is also the main focus of a new 12-inch interactive Barney plush from Hasbro called eSpecially My Barney. Available fall 2000 for a US$49.99 SRP, the toy will have PC plug-in capabilities allowing parents to visit the Web site and download information enabling the plush to interact with each kid in a unique way. For example, parents can ‘teach’ the babbling Barney their child’s name, birthday and favorite type of nursery rhymes. ‘The mom will be able to provide the child with a new play experience every day,’ says Lorrie Browning, VP of marketing for licensed brands.

The unique thing about this and other download-friendly toys is that they can be taken and played with away from the computer, which is a definite trend, according to Strommen.

High-tech for kids is also increasingly copying adult communication technology to create toys that allow kids to pass information to each other.

Hasbro has created a pager-like toy for girls ages six and up called Talkin’acha (SRP US$29.99), set to street this September. The toy lets kids send messages to friends using wireless voice messaging technology. Girls can record an eight-second message and can either transmit it to a friend’s communicator remotely or pass the message to another Talkin’acha user by physically touching the recipient. Kids can also store messages on Buzz Cards (SRP US$6.99 for a package of two), which can be removed and passed on to friends.

Grabbing onto the coattails of Intel Play’s Me2Cam, Tiger Electronics is coming out with Net-Cam (SRP US$59) this summer. The Net-Cam is your basic digital camera with a couple of high-tech enhancements. It can be used for security, that is, placed on a child’s computer where it takes pictures of anyone passing in front of the infrared sensor, or it can take pictures in pitch darkness using infrared technology.

The department of interactive technologies at Children’s Television Workshop has come out with a twist on another adult communication device-the telephone. Elmo’s Computer Phone debuted at Christmas for US$29.95 and allows children to interact with a PC. Using a CD-ROM, the child can hear different Sesame Street characters though a handset plugged into a computer. The program is able to recognize when the child is speaking and respond, but can’t actually understand what the child is saying.

In the near future, CTW is looking to explore vehicles like toy submarines or spaceships that hook up to the computer, much like the Elmo phone. Rob Madell, group VP of interactive, envisions toy vehicles that hook up to a computer’s mouse port so that virtual movements on the screen reflect physical movements of the toy as it is played with.

Strommen predicts the hottest high-tech products will continue to be interactive characters-everyone’s doing it, although some in more advanced ways than others. He says the technology used by most of these interactive products is quite simple-’not very different from pulling a string’-but the more complex versions will either use the Net or internal technology to communicate with each other or a child. To compute info, they usually contain a low-powered processor. Last year’s Actimates chip was an example of a chip that could do a fair bit of processing, he adds, yet it was ‘roadkill compared to a low-end PC.’

This year, Tiger is upping the artificial intelligence of its interactive toy smash with Furby Babies, which VP of marketing and product development Jeff Jones says have a 25% larger vocabulary than their adult counterparts. The company is also coming out with a licensed E.T. toy (yes, from the Spielberg movie) that can interact with other Furby-brand toys. The toy will have a neck that raises and lowers, as well as a glowing index finger and heart. Much like a Furby, its verbal abilities will become more advanced as it is played with, and it will prompt the child to play built-in games. The E.T. toy will launch fall 2000 with an SRP of US$40. Although the E.T. film came out back in 1983, Jones says the character is still recognizable to many kids and parents and fits perfectly with Furby technology.

Playmates Toys has developed its own type of interactive technology consisting of eight licensed Simpsons Intelli-Tronic action figures (SRP US$6 each) that can interact with each other when they are in an Intelli-Tronic environment. On their own, the figures have no special capabilities, but when placed in one of the three environments (SRP US$20), such as the Simpsons’ living room, the nuclear power plant or the Kwik-E-Mart, the characters are recognized and caused to speak. The Simpsons merch also includes a separate line of 15-inch, battery-operated characters (SRP US$25) that can speak 10 to 12 phrases independently and have two-minute conversations with other figures thanks to recognition through infra-red signals.

So what will the future of high-tech look like? Some would argue that it’s already here-in the form of the convergence of television and the Internet, and toy applications from the convergence world, which Strommen and others term ‘the post-PC environment.’ He predicts various toys will come together in one basic box and some form of downloadable data recorder. An application might be a mystery-type game in which the players would be able to download different clues and play an entirely different game each time, using a ‘tablet’ type device that would allow downloadable information to be carried with the person. He also envisions what he terms a ‘pretend playmate’-a robot-like virtual friend.

He sees toys like Lego Systems Mindstorms done in a way that is ‘less clunky.’ Rather than having to use the computer to change information, he envisions a ‘smart device,’ containing all necessary information within the toy. That would mean that if you put wheels or wings on the toy, it would ‘know’ it had wheels or wings and act accordingly.

‘The current situation with toys and technology is that it’s very fluid in the sense that there’s a zillion different technologies,’ concludes Strommen, ‘but on the other side, toy companies are naturally conservative and very suspicious of doing something innovative. The potential is huge, but actually the technology [seen in toys thus far] is very disappointing.’

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