Toy Fair 2000: tech for tech’s sake

Toys that could eat, sleep, wake up, sing, gurgle, burp and bark were plentiful among the new product lines toycos unveiled at this year's Toy Fair. But even as companies could proudly claim that their toys bundled the whiz-bang technologies du...
March 1, 2000

Toys that could eat, sleep, wake up, sing, gurgle, burp and bark were plentiful among the new product lines toycos unveiled at this year’s Toy Fair. But even as companies could proudly claim that their toys bundled the whiz-bang technologies du jour-voice recognition, artificial intelligence, radio frequency and touch sensor, for example-few pushed the boundaries of those technologies’ capabilities or used them in such a manner that convincingly differentiated their cutting-edge qualities from that of their competitors.

Perhaps the epitome of a toy that seemed to embody the pervasive tech ethos is Amazing Maddie, one of Playmates’ new add-on products for its Amazing Ally doll. Maddie’s key selling point? It interacts with Amazing Ally. The two dolls can talk to each other on their cell phones. Finally, a toy so advanced kids don’t even have to play with it! What play value such a toy engenders is anyone’s guess.

That said, there were a couple of items among this year’s offerings that managed to rise above the pack, and in the process, shake weary Toy Fair wanderers from their showroom slumber.

For the second year in a row, the Intel-Mattel partnership yielded the biggest advancement with the Intel Play Movie Creator, a computer app that comes with a video camera and editing program, allowing kids to make their own movies. Using Movie Creator, kids can electronically storyboard their works on their PC, add special effects like animation, and once they’re finished, they can e-mail their film to a friend. Though less impressive, Sound Morpher, the other new item in the Intel Play line, allows kids to manipulate audio. Sound Morpher also features a photo-imaging app, which kids can use to alter saved image files, add sound effects and, of course, e-mail to a friend. Both Sound Morpher and Movie Creator are targeted to kids ages six and up and are slated to hit stores in Q4. The Sound Morpher is between US$40 and US$45 and the Movie Creator is around US$100.

Another example of a toy that actually offered the potential to evolve beyond its technological parameters was Bandai’s Power Rangers Lightspeed Rescue Deluxe Interactive Omega Megazord figures. Unlike most talking figures, which speak a finite number of phrases, by plugging Megazord into the TV while LightSpeed Rescue is on, the doll automatically downloads seven phrases that are digitally encoded into the show. And with each new episode, kids can download seven new phrases. Bandai incorporated Microsoft’s Smart Technology in creating the Omega Megazord Doll (US$59.99), which has the added benefit of compelling kids to tune into the Lightspeed Rescue TV show.

PMDs (personal messaging devices), a.k.a. palm pilots for prepubescents, were ubiquitous at this year’s fair, as companies made an effort to interest girls in electronic handhelds. Hasbro, Radica, MGA and Manley Toy Quest all showcased gizmos that use radio frequency or infrared technology to transmit brief text and/or audio messages over short distances. The award for design ingenuity in the PMD category goes to Toy Biz for its VMail line. VMail looks like a pen, but in fact doubles as a voice messaging system, on which kids can record a four-second message before sending it to one or more friends at distances of up to 100 feet. VMail also features an earpiece, which allows users to listen to their messages on the sly. Expect it to be a popular item at schools-especially during exam week.Toy Biz will release VM in July in a variety of colors, for US$19.99 each.

For younger girls who desire a more traditional nurturing play pattern from their toys, there were plenty of new items to choose from in the large-size baby doll category.

Both Mattel and Hasbro ratcheted up the reality factor with their respective dolls. Mattel’s Miracle Moves Baby (US$99.99) combines voice recognition and touch-sensor technology, enabling it to respond to physical and verbal prompts. Motion sensors in the doll also allow it to follow its owner’s movements with its eyes, causing one onlooker to comment on a Bride of Chucky resonance. No less real was Hasbro’s My Real Baby, a large-size doll that performs many of the same functions as Miracle Moves. My Real Baby (US$95), which Hasbro will release next Christmas, features animatronic technology that enables it to scrunch up its forehead, smile and make other life-like expressions. Both My Real Baby and Miracle Moves Baby feature internal clocks that put the babies on a regular schedule and give the impression that they’re learning-à la Furby-the more a child continuously plays with them.

For older girls, Mattel has decided to launch Barbie’s younger sister Kelly as its own brand. The line includes Cuddly Soft, a 16-inch doll line; and Kelly Club, a five-inch doll line and related Web site ( Mattel is selling each KC doll in one of three themed sets, including Career, Sports and Fantasy. Dolls will come with a free poster plus a profile on each, detailing info on its personality and interests. To enhance the collectibility aspect, Mattel plans to retire the entire KC 2000 line at the end of this year, prior to releasing the 2001 items. Additionally, the site will allow girls to find out more about new KC dolls, send e-cards and play games. Mattel began releasing the first wave of Kelly dolls and accessories in January and will continue to release new product through 2000.

Big Sis’ Barbie will be in the pink for 2000. The latest iteration, Jewel Girl Barbie, finds the 40-plus icon obviously trying to thwart the ravages of middle age. In Jewel Girl Barbie, Mattel has given Barbie a more girl-like face and fixed her with a new (wider) ever-flex waist, which makes her more athletic than previous dolls. The JGB consists of three dolls (US$17), each with a distinct ethnicity and each with diamonds in their hair. Release date: August.

Targeting the same girl demo is Mattel’s funky new Diva Starz line. The Diva Starz, which look like Mattel spliced Barbie and Power Puff Girls DNA, are four bug-eyed eight-and-a-half-inch dolls that speak like mall rats and dish out plenty of unsolicited fashion advice. Mattel has created a Divas CD-ROM, which girls can use to find out more about the toys, as well as a Diva’s Web site that will show DS Webisodes beginning in July. Mattel Diva Starz stroll into stores this August, and will retail for US$29.99 each.

In boys action figures, the large-size doll appears to have made a comeback. In September, Hasbro will release a range of figures, vehicles and other accessories for Action Man (US$9.99 to US$29.99), which is currently the number-one-selling boys action figure in Europe. The 12-inch fully articulated figures for Action Man will be available in three environments, including jungle, extreme and urban. Hasbro is also creating dolls for Action Man’s archnemesis Dr. X (US$9.99). In support of the line, the toyco has assembled a US$12-million marketing campaign that includes TV, print and Internet, as well as a mass mailing of two million CD-ROMS containing info on the property, contests and product discounts, which Hasbro will send out to kids in the U.S. in August. The CGI show Action Man will begin airing on Fox Kids Network in September and will be preceded on the net by a one-hour morning special airing in May.

With Pokémon, Hasbro’s most popular boys line, the company showed no signs of wanting to slow down the gravy train. In a splashy presser and global Web cast held at the company’s showroom, Hasbro unveiled its 2000 Pokémon line by having kids trot out the new items on a runway to music from the Pokémon movie. Before the year is out , Hasbro will have released 16 new product assortment SKUs covering board games, electronic handhelds, electronic tabletops, trading cards, candy, puzzles, plush and combat figures, among other items. As the hit song goes ‘We’re all living in Pokémon world’-whether you like it or not.

In terms of major licensing agreements, Toy Fair 2000 concluded as an uneventful show. Before the event officially began, Warner Bros. announced it had awarded Mattel with the much sought-after master toy license for publishing phenom Harry Potter. The deal gives Mattel the rights to create dolls, vehicles, games and figures based on the literary characters, as well as the HP feature films that Warner Bros. is producing. Reportedly, the first wave of toys, based on the first title, will be distributed through Warner Bros. Studio stores exclusively starting this fall. Though it didn’t snare the master toy license, Hasbro was not locked out of the Harry Potter sweepstakes altogether. A day or so following the Mattel announcement, Warner Bros. said it had licensed Hasbro to create Harry Potter handheld electronics, role-playing games, trading card games and candy, which the Pawtucket-based toyco will produce through its subsidiary companies Tiger Electronics, Wizards of the Coast and Oddzon.

Other news of note included Nickelodeon granting a license to Jakks Pacific to create a line of activity-based kits for its property The Wild Thornberrys. The two-year deal allows Jakks to create lunch boxes, back-to-school supply kits, stationery activity kits and activity desks featuring characters from the animated show. The merch, which Jakks is producing under its Flying Colors Toys brand, will hit stores in Q4.

In an unrelated deal, Nick also expanded its licensing agreement with Mattel Interactive to include the production of game titles based on Nick’s show Blue’s Clues for the Sony PlayStation and Color Game Boy formats. Titles for both formats will be available at stores starting this fall.

Jargon Watch: Sizzle

‘Do you want to see the sizzle?’ was a question toy presenters (read underemployed actors) repeatedly asked attendees following their spiel for the new product they had just demoed. The sizzle, of course, is marketing-speak toycos (acting in concert it seems) are now using to refer to the video clips they’ve created to promote the toys. (For the record: last year they were called commercials.) That the term slipped into common usage among industry folk with nary a protest is probably not important in itself, though it underlines the central irony of the convention: while there was plenty of sizzle at Toy Fair 2000, there certainly wasn’t much steak .

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