High-tech toys not just for adult kids anymore Trend: More and more, dolls and other children's playthings run on computer chips.

August 03, 1998|By John M. Moran | John M. Moran,Hartford Courant

A motor whirs softly as the robotic dealer slides a card from the deck, turns a bit to the right and starts dishing out another hand.

When four players have their first cards, the robot sweeps back to its left and begins another pass - all without wires or human intervention.

This complex bit of engineering and programming is actually child's play. It was built entirely from Lego plastic bricks and electronic components in a new toy construction kit called Lego Mindstorms Robotics Invention System.

It's also an example of one of the hottest trends in toy-making today: the growing use of high-tech components in traditional toys such as building blocks and dolls.

"You're seeing a blurring of the lines between what is a software product and what is a toy product," said Lego spokesman John Dion. "It's linking the real world and the virtual world."

Technology has long been a part of toy-making, of course. Model trains, remote-controlled cars, talking dolls and other classics have taken advantage of motors, lights, bells and whistles to capture the interest and imagination of children.

But what sets this latest generation of toys apart is its reliance on computer chips and other components to create toys that not only move or make noise, but also interact with their environment.

With Lego Mindstorms, for example, children can build a small robot that drops sunglasses over its eyes when a light is shining and then raises those sunglasses when it goes dark. A separate project in the $200 kit creates a motorized vehicle that backs up and moves in another direction whenever it bumps into something.

"We even like to think of this as a product that's beyond a toy - more of a technology tool for kids," said Linda Dalton, director of Lego Mindstorms. "We're really trying to give kids the tools so they can create the environment that they want. The kids can really do what they have visualized."

For now, at least, the high-tech toys tend to be relatively expensive - generally ranging from $50 to $200. But just as with personal computers, observers say, the price is likely to fall and performance is likely to improve.

In addition, the high-tech toys are providing manufacturers with a flashy new selling point for their products as the industry looks ahead to the Christmas shopping season. Technology toys were prominently displayed at this year's American International Toy Fair, the industry's leading trade show.

Other members of the new generation of interactive toys include:

* Microsoft ActiMates dolls, including Barney the dinosaur from the TV series, and, soon, Arthur and D.W. from the Marc Brown book. These dolls react to various kinds of touching and squeezing by the child. With optional add-on kits, the dolls can also interact with associated television programs or software by singing and talking.

* Amazing Amy by Playmates Toys. Amazing Amy reacts to the time of day, based on a clock embedded within the doll. She'll ask to eat breakfast in the morning and to change into her pajamas at night. Sensors in other parts of her body help the doll keep track of what clothes it is wearing, what toy food it is eating and whether its hair is being brushed. Price: $70 to $80.

* My Interactive Pooh from Disney and Mattel. The famous "silly old bear" can be programmed with stories, songs and games, as well as personal information about the child, such as birthday and hair color. The bear also interacts with a related software program. Price: about $100.

* Takin' Care of Baby from Toyriffic. This doll speaks up when she's tired, hungry or needs a diaper change. The doll also responds to actions by the child, such as by saying, "I love you, Mommy," in response to a kiss on the forehead. Price: $29.99.

One of the leading factors driving the trend toward high-tech toys is the growing power and falling prices of the parts. Computer chips and memory that once cost hundreds of dollars can be had for a fraction of the cost.

Chris Byrne of Playthings Marketwatch an industry trade publication, said the trend is just getting rolling and is likely to accelerate.

"Children are born into a technological world. Their frame of reference is that there's always technology," Byrne said. "What electronics does is it simply enhances and adds a level of reality to the play experience."

Ryan Slate, director of marketing for Playthings Toys, said toys are simply keeping up with the trend toward technology that's affecting many other areas of everyday life.

"I think kids expect more in their toys these days because technology is all around them," he said. "We're in a computer age, and I think that translates down to the toys."

Mitchell Resnick, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, which helped Lego design the Mindstorms product, said such toys can help children learn in new ways.

"There's a whole set of dynamic qualities that are linked to behavior in toys that interact and react in the world," Resnick said. "With traditional construction kits, kids have never been able to explore those possibilities. Kids just couldn't build that before."

Christin Winkel, product manager for Microsoft's ActiMates, agreed.

"Research has shown that kids learn best when they have a partner that they can trust," she said. "The whole reason that we did Barney in the first place was that we saw an opportunity for Barney to interact with a PC and increase the educational experience in a whole new way."

Pub Date: 8/3/98

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