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Innovation shines through the blizzard at Toy Fair 2003

There may have been a raging snowstorm outside, but that didn't stop the toy industry's finest from strutting their stuff at Toy Fair 2003. While larger companies operating out of the Toy Industry Association building were able to stretch their appointment schedules, companies displaying at Javits Convention Center were the hardest hit by the storm, considering the showroom was only open for three and a half days instead of the usual five. But the floor was buzzing, and the lineups at the showroom coat checks were always long, proving it'll take more than a little snow to keep exhibitors down.
March 1, 2003

There may have been a raging snowstorm outside, but that didn’t stop the toy industry’s finest from strutting their stuff at Toy Fair 2003. While larger companies operating out of the Toy Industry Association building were able to stretch their appointment schedules, companies displaying at Javits Convention Center were the hardest hit by the storm, considering the showroom was only open for three and a half days instead of the usual five. But the floor was buzzing, and the lineups at the showroom coat checks were always long, proving it’ll take more than a little snow to keep exhibitors down.

Thin was definitely in for 2003, with several companies coming out with technology that allows electronic circuits and batteries to be printed on paper. New York start-up T-Ink, creator of a new patented conductive ink, has partnered with Toys ‘R’ Us on a line of tech toys that look deceptively simple. The T-Ink Zone at TRU’s Times Square store was unveiled at Toy Fair and will feature interactive products that are printed on sheets of paper or plastic and activated by simply touching the ink – the moisture in your finger completes the circuit and activates the effects.

First to hit shelves was the Airwavez inflatable radio (US$19.99) and a line of electronic learning coloring pads (US$6.99 to US$17.99) that make music when you touch the paper or color with a marker. The T-Ink treatment has also been given to play mats (US$19.99), puzzles (US$7.99) and a Fast Lane Magic Vest that controls an R/C car (US$19.99).

San Francisco-based Wild Planet is releasing its own O2tronics line of inflatable conductive ink electronics in March, including an Air Boom Box (US$14.99) and Air DJ Headphones (US$14.99) to go with the company’s Room Gear line.

Pawtucket, Rhode Island-based Hasbro subsidiary Tiger Electronics is launching its Thintronix brand of lifestyle products in April, including slap message bracelets & watches (US$24.99) and musical stickers (US$9.99) using a printable battery technology called power paper. The slap bracelets and watches will record up to 10 seconds of speech that can be played back with the touch of a finger. The line will also have a working, poster-thin speakerphone and radio that kids can hang on their walls. Hasbro’s VideoNow (US$50) generated a lot of buzz – the portable personal video player will be released this fall and plays 30-minute video discs of hot kids shows like Lizzie McGuire and SpongeBob SquarePants (US$7.99 each).

Also topping the tech toy trend meter is NeoPets, an on-line virtual pet phenomenon that has attracted 48 million users and grows its web community by about 50,000 new users a day. Toronto, Canada’s Thinkway Toys is coming out with a fall line of interactive plush based on the six most popular on-line pets (US$34.99) and pet pets (US$9 to US$11), which are pets for your NeoPet. In March, Thinkway rolled out six voice-activated, four-inch, plastic figures for US$14.99 each, and it will add to the line this fall.

Hasbro is making NeoPets portable in March, when it launches Personal Pocket NeoPets (US$14.99), each featuring a handheld LCD screen and four different games. The toyco’s Renton, Washington-based Wizards of the Coast gaming division is also coming out with a trading card game in Q4.

The battle for tweens is heating up the doll aisle as Mattel’s My Scene Barbie and MGA Entertainment’s Bratz duke it out for market share. Both are expanding their doll lines and creating new lifestyle products. Starting in July, L.A.’s MGA is offering a Bratz-inspired line called Electric Funk that encompasses CD players, phones and a TV/DVD combo, while El Segundo, California’s Mattel is playing up the music quotient by packaging My Scene dolls with a mixed CD that reflects individual doll personalities. Mattel is also offering a My Scene Music Mixer (US$49.99, September), a cell phone-shaped recorder that stores 60 minutes of tunes that girls can swap with their friends.

This fall, Mattel is expanding its Happy Family Barbie line with a pair of grandparent dolls complete with graying hair.

In March, Mattel’s girls division released what it’s billing as the first brand that caters to how girls build with Ello, a creation system that comes with colorful panels and offbeat shapes for making everything from people, to places, to jewelry. (For more on Ello’s conception, see ‘Mattel taps its creative juices with the power of Platypus,’ page 57.)

Montreal, Canada’s Mega Bloks is also targeting girl builders with its June-launching line of preschool playsets featuring some of Disney’s most popular characters, including Pooh and the Disney Princesses.

Lego is getting away from tradition with its girl-skewing Clikits designer craft systems, which are ready to hit shelves in June. The venerable construction toy giant is also debuting some new playsets that incorporate unusual and flexible pieces and give kids’ creations personalities of their own. The simple motors and gears in Inventor Sets (US$14.99 to US$39.99), launching in June, let kids craft quirky little characters that can stir your coffee or shuffle a deck of cards. And going way beyond the simplistic styling of Lego’s traditional yellow man piece, the Bionicle-esque, NHL-licensed Lego Hockey players are set to hit the ice in July.

Remote control will be everywhere this fall. In September, Mattel’s Tyco R/C unit is launching a Power Changers (US$25.99) line of four-inch, remote-controlled cars and boats with swappable engines, as well as the X.F.O. (US$59.99) flying machine, which has the guts to reach 75 feet and the control to make indoor flight a safe possibility.

Malibu California-based Jakks Pacific’s Turbo Chargers (US$12.99), available in the fall, use new touch-activated technology to charge up using the heat from kids’ hands. Even Hasbro’s Beyblade battling tops can be launched and controlled by remote (US$29.99) starting in August. Girls haven’t been forgotten in the R/C craze – Both Hasbro and MGA are releasing roller-skating R/C dolls and voice-activated dogs. Hasbro’s Radical Rolling Rachel (US$29.99) and Go-Go My Walking Pup (US$49.99) are launching in the fall, and MGA’s Roller Skater Samantha and Walk With Me Daisy (both US$29.99) are coming out this fall.

Fisher-Price is hoping to capitalize on its past success with singing and dancing Elmos by introducing the Limbo (US$24.99) and Hokey Pokey (US$29.99) Elmos, which will be available in May and June respectively. The company is also giving the animatronic treatment to other characters including Dora the Explorer with Magical Friends Singing Dora (US$29.99), Bugs Bunny with Bunny Dance Bugs (US$24.99) and Joe from Blue’s Clues with the Dance ‘N Shake Joe (US$19.99).

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