Parents, you've been warned: Toys that connect to the Net for upgrades are coming.

March 27, 2000|By David L. Wilson | David L. Wilson,Knight Ridder/Tribune

Just say, "Some assembly required" and you'll trigger painful memories for many parents. The fruitless attempts to fit tab A into slot B. The incomprehensible instructions. The child's tears when the toy didn't work right.

If you thought trying to put together a bicycle was tough, better brace yourself. The toy industry is rolling out a new breed of playthings -- including old favorites such as stuffed animals, dolls and games -- with software designed to be repeatedly updated through Internet downloads via the household computer.

These malleable toys will offer a staggering degree of customization, focus on topics your child is interested in and will remain "fresh" for months or years longer than the typical electronic toy, whose tricks are limited to the small amount of programming that can be built into an on-board chip.

Many of these toys are aimed at toddlers (e-Specially My Barney), and even infants (electronic Music Blocks). While most parents with a computer and an Internet connection are comfortable visiting a Web site, a whole lot of people flinch at the thought of plugging a talking teddy bear into the back of their PC to change a soundtrack.

Even the companies making these new products aren't sure how many parents are willing to take the leap.

"There is a certain level of technology that people need to know before they'll be comfortable with this," acknowledged Jen Sward, project manager with the Internet division of LeapFrog, a California company introducing five such products this year.

All five of LeapFrog's educational toys -- some aimed at kids as young as 2 -- will operate just fine without an Internet connection. But the downloads make them more flexible and expand their capabilities.

Although the company has put enormous research into making the toys easy to connect to the family computer, Sward said people who are completely ignorant about the ports on the back of their box will probably have trouble.

"It's a challenge," Sward conceded. "We actually want something that's easy enough for the parents to use, if you will."

The concept has broad appeal, based on a number of interviews with parents, though most expressed some trepidation.

"I would be willing to learn how to do that," said Jennifer L. Thompson, a Campbell, Calif., accountant with a 4-year-old boy and an 8-month-old girl. "But I know a fair amount about computers."

Those who aren't quite so computer-savvy were doubtful. "I wouldn't know how to do it, " said Sherry Lambert, a day care provider in San Jose. "Somebody would have to teach me, or give me very detailed instructions."

Experts say fear of fiddling with a computer isn't unreasonable.

"People are apprehensive about this sort of thing because the technology is still overwhelming, confusing and unpredictable," said Ben Shneiderman, director of the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory and an authority on making computers operate more intuitively. "We've made some progress, but the industry still has a long way to go before a computer is as easy for people to use as a blender."

Lambert has one advantage over less technically adept parents. Her two boys, ages 11 and 7, are old enough to handle some of the computing chores for her. "My 7-year-old could teach me how to do it," she said with a laugh.

But many of these toys are aimed at children far too young to help their parents. Dozens of computer-linkable products will appear on store shelves before Christmas, and many were on display at the annual Toy Fair in New York City last month.

For instance, Neurosmith, a Long Beach, Calif., toy maker, will introduce the Cyber Cartridge system, which allows parents to download new tunes for the company's big hit from last year, Music Blocks, designed for kids 2 and up.

Hasbro's e-Specially My Barney -- the talking purple dinosaur popular with toddlers -- can be customized by parents who visit a Hasbro Web site and provide information such as the child's birthday and favorite colors. The dinosaur is designed to be updated daily and then carried around like a traditional plush toy while he sings, tells stories and otherwise entertains.

To alleviate fears that inappropriate material might appear on a child's plaything, most companies tightly control their downloads.

"You'd have to be crazy to be doing this and not have 100 percent control," said Matt Brown, director of LeapFrog's Internet division, which expects an August launch of the Web site where parents will go for data downloads.

Others argue that kids want the freedom to make their own choices. "It's a cassette recorder for the digital age," explains Michael O'Neill, assistant marketing director for Hit Clips, a digital recording and playback system from Hasbro's Tiger Electronics division.

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