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Toys, electronics blurred at CES

The buzz from the radio-controlled helicopters was audible even amongst the usual hubbub at the 2008 Consumer Electronic Show held in Las Vegas, Nevada last month. As head of consumer insights at Strottman International (see 'Sounding off on Parenthood,' p. 67), I've been attending the show since 2002 to identify trends that might inspire Strottman's custom toy and plush premiums designers.
February 1, 2008

The buzz from the radio-controlled helicopters was audible even amongst the usual hubbub at the 2008 Consumer Electronic Show held in Las Vegas, Nevada last month. As head of consumer insights at Strottman International (see ‘Sounding off on Parenthood,’ p. 67), I’ve been attending the show since 2002 to identify trends that might inspire Strottman’s custom toy and plush premiums designers.

And while dodging the eye-high Marvel flying vehicles emblazoned with Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk images, it got me thinking that it was only a few years ago that you needed to be a trained RC enthusiast to maneuver this type of craft. Because tech components and microchips have gotten so sophisticated and inexpensive, it puts items like these easily within reach of eager 12-year-olds looking to play with something cool. The line between toys and consumer electronics has never been blurrier.

In fact, toycos had a sizeable presence for the first time since I started attending the show. About 20 toycos, including Mattel and Wild Planet, had booths in the Sands’ Hall of Innovations. And they were touting playthings spawned by the same technological evolution powering the RCs.

Extending the popularity of its Barbie Girls virtual world, Mattel launched Barbie iDesign, featuring tech-based fashion play through a CD-ROM game, a USB scanner and collectible, swipeable fashion cards. The kit builds on the popularity of the online community (and MP3 player) that launched last summer, and currently boasts more than 9.5 million registered users worldwide.

I also noticed several CE companies selling toy-like products – something else I hadn’t seen before. For example, a Chinese company called Pengo had a plush mouse with a built-in MP3 player for preschoolers. The controls were located on the figure’s feet, but the hardware it contained was the real thing, boasting a capacity of 2GBs.

And then I saw several devices with clear commercial applications for the tween market that weren’t targeting any one demo in particular. Two years ago, digital picture frames were all the rage, but thanks to the faster, cheaper MO driving the CE industry, wristwatch-sized digital screens were everywhere. The devices would suit accessory retailers operating in the tween space like Limited Too.

The proliferation of products skirting the toy/CE divide dovetailed nicely with the first-ever Sandbox Summit hosted by the Parent’s Choice Foundation. For me, the highlight was Warren Buckleitner PhD, editor of the Children’s Technology Review. Right in line with Mattel’s strategy for evolving the Barbie brand, Buckleitner said one of the major trends for 2008 will be enhanced interactivity in all facets of children’s play.

Buckleitner’s observations also led to an interesting discussion about whether this new digital environment, filled with unregulated virtual worlds and gaming sites, should be controlled. Those who advocate restricting marketing targeted at kids are asking if general COPPA regulations are enough, or if new guidelines are needed. Marketers, however, would argue that such new rules would be an unnecessary hindrance to the open marketplace. I certainly hope to see a largely regulation-free environment, with parents being responsible for providing proper guidance to their children in this new interactive sphere. But the jury’s still out on this one.

One more thing, after walking the thin carpet of the convention center for hours trying to suss out what’s at the cutting edge of kid-centric technology, I discovered iShoes. The booth was not in the toy section, but close enough that I just couldn’t ignore it. You strap them to your feet; hold a controller in your hand, and go.

The wheeled shoes accelerate in synch with each other and the wearer can ‘walk’ up to three miles on a 60-minute battery charge. I don’t know whether a company like Razor, Nike or Spin Master will pick iShoe up for mass-market development, but I could see kids falling for it. If only I could score a pair before the next trade show.

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