Tech 'R' Us

Forget the Beanie Babies and Lincoln Logs of the past. Most of this year's hot toys come with a computer chip.

December 02, 2006|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,sun reporter

This holiday season, the buzzword for hot toys is technology - from video consoles to digitized games to computerized stuffed toys.

They're items that prompted gadget buffs to form long lines outside stores well before Thanksgiving. For some shoppers, that meant scant supply of items on Black Friday made for a bleak Friday.

Such is the age of computerized entertainment, which has been steadily affecting the toy industry since the late 1990s.

"What technology has done is change our idea of what is a toy," said Chris Byrne, analyst and co-editor of Toy Wishes magazine. "It used to be that kids couldn't drive a truck so they had a toy dump truck. Now, kids can download as many songs as a 30-year-old. You don't need a toy version of an iPod."

That's why nowadays there isn't much difference between the items you'd see on an adult holiday gift list and a youngster's list.

For example: Without question, the got-to-have-it gift during this holiday season is the Playstation 3 (or PS3), a Sony state-of-the-art video console that features multiplayer gaming, text and video messaging, Internet browsing and DVD capability.

Lines formed at stores across the nation before the $500 console's launch Nov. 17. At Circuit City in Rockville, scores of customers waited in a line filled with camping tents a week before.

Before the doors opened at midnight, Washington-area radio station DC 101-FM auctioned off five PS3s to folks who weren't in line. Among the winners was Madonna Aveni of Alexandria, Va., who immediately envisioned being the first person in her neighborhood with the console.

"I'm going to be very popular for the next few months," she said. "I'm going to be traveling around to people's houses" with the console.

Even in traditional types of toys, technology rules. Among the hottest toy dolls is Elmo T.M.X., a cuddly, squeaky-voiced furry monster who does even more tricks and movements than the Tickle Me Elmo toy that prompted a craze 10 years ago.

A product for kids 18 months and up, Elmo T.M.X. costs $40.

"We're seeing more and more technology in

anything kids have," Byrne said. "By 2000, the industry said, `Look, it's cool, but ... when kids sat down to play with toys like Furby, it wasn't an exciting playing experience.'

"Now, the investment is to say great computer chips should make a doll more than a CPU in a dress."

Like the video consoles, Elmo T.M.X. appears to have wide-range appeal; adults enjoy its moves and gyrations - and they enjoy watching young ones being entertained by the toy.

That's a problem for some who say that the best toys are those that are not only entertaining but also stimulate learning and physical creativity.

"The technology [of Elmo T.M.X.] is impressive, but it's a performance," said Claire Green, president of the Timonium-based Parent's Choice Foundation, who said toys that stimulate learning have more "lasting appeal."

Green and Byrne agree that among this year's toys with lasting appeal is the Lego Mindstorms robotic invention kit based on work done at the MIT Media Lab.

The $250 kit enables you to build a robot with sensors, motors, gears and an embedded microprocessor.

"It's really an awesome product," Green said. "It takes off-the-shelf technology and puts it in a toy, and at the end of the day, it's about building a robot, and that's a human kind of thing."

joseph.burris@ baltsun.com

Hot toys

Among the hot holiday items this year:

Lego Mindstorms robotic invention kit: Lets kids build a robot with sensors, motors, gears and an embedded microprocessor. $250. For ages 10 and older.

Elmo T.M.X: The 10th anniversary edition of Tickle Me Elmo doll that was all the rage in the 1990s. The latest version of the little red monster has even more moves than the original. $40. For ages 18 months and older.

Sony Playstation 3: Video console that features multiplayer gaming, text and video messaging, Internet browsing and DVD capability. $500.

Nintendo Wii (pronounced wee): Launched in the U.S. in September, the video console has in recent weeks rivaled PS3 in popularity - in part because it costs $250 and is in greater supply.

Monopoly Here & Now: The popular classic game has been upgraded to reflect today's pop culture. Gone are the Atlantic City landmarks, having made way for such popular venues as Times Square and Rodeo Drive. Its player pieces include a Starbucks coffee mug and a laptop computer. From $25. For ages 7 and older.

Fly Bundle Pentop Computer: A pen with a built-in computer processor that creates music, teaches Spanish, even does algebra. Its power comes from an optical scanner that writes on dot-matrix paper. Starting from $110. The Fly is targeted for children 8 to 13, but would you want your kid taking a computerized pen to school?

Kid Tough Digital Camera: The standout feature in this digital camera: Kids can drop it without breaking it. It also has an LCD screen, and it holds up to 60 pictures. The $70 camera comes in pink and blue. For ages 3 and older.

Digi Makeover Interactive Makeup Kit: Lets kids manipulate images of themselves to see what they would look like with different hair color or hairstyle. Claire Green, president of the Timonium-based Parent's Choice Foundation, worries how such a product might affect impressionable youngsters who are already image-conscious. $60. For ages 7 and older.

Crayola Explosion Spinner: Billed as airbrush painting meets watercolor, the mess-free toy comes with clear-ink cartridges that snap into an airbrush machine that sprays a colorful mist onto Color Wonder paper. $20. For ages 6 and older.

Disney Princess Project and Draw: An activity set that allows you to draw your favorite princess (from Disney characters, of course). Says Chris Byrne of Toy Wishes magazine: "It's cute, and princesses are hot. You can put princesses on anything and sell them." $20. For ages 3 to 8.

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