Once upon a time radio-controlled cars were considered high-tech toys. Then along came a brave new world of robotic dogs and Barbie computers -- and those plastic SUVs became about as high-tech as an eight-track tape.
Just how high-tech the $22.38bn (£13.8bn) toy industry has become will be on display from Saturday until Thursday at the American International Toy Fair in New York. There are so many electronic products at this year's show, which features more than 2,000 toy makers from around the world, that Toy Fair 2000 will, for the first time, have a special pavilion dedicated to high-tech toys.
Playtime, it seems, has become tech time.
"Kids live in a very technological world, so you want something that reflects that," said Chris Byrne, editor of the Toy Report, an industry newsletter. "It's not being done to the exclusion of classic toys," but Byrne said manufacturers are working harder to integrate technology into their products.
"You've got more and more consumer electronics being pitched to kids at a younger age," he said.
And many of those consumer electronics mirror products popular in the grown-up world. For instance, one big trend this year is communications -- several companies are showing devices that allow children to beam messages back forth using radio frequency or infrared technology. Other trends include robotic dogs and digital music players.
Most of those product lines will sound familiar to anyone who has been following the consumer electronics and computer industries over the past few years.
One reason is that as adults' technology improves and the price of older technology drops, it becomes affordable for toy makers to market yesterday's adult gadget to today's children. "First-generation digital technology is trickling down and being upgraded. What do you do with older technology? You repackage it as toys," said Billy Pidgeon, Web technology analyst at Jupiter Communications in New York. "A lot of digital cameras (use) obsolete, older technology that used to sell to adults."
Kids are also anxious to mimic their parents, Byrne said. Products that copy adult products, like toy kitchens and toy tools, have been around for years, he pointed out.
One successful example over the past year was the Pokedex, an electronic device that includes an encyclopaedia of all 150 Pokémon, a calculator and an organiser. "Kids see their parents organising their lives on PalmPilots, and they want to organise too," Byrne said. "But they don't have schedules. They have Pokemon."
Digital music players, which have caught on in a big way with older teens and young adults, are now making their way to the younger set.
At the Toy Fair 2000, Mattel Interactive will show off its Computer Sound Morpher and CD-ROM, which lets kids record voices and morph them on a computer. The product was developed as part of the company's joint effort with Intel, which last year produced the QX3 Microscope and the Me2Cam, a video camera, that both hook up to the PC.
Tiger, a division of Hasbro, is working with Yahoo! on the Yahoo! HitClips Downloader, a $25 product that lets kids record music off the Internet. The Downloader can transfer the files to portable playback devices about the size of a key chain.
Some of the electronic messaging devices are strikingly similar to adult "toys". The Cybiko "Wireless Intertainment System" for example, is a handheld device that includes wireless chat, email and a personal planner. The system lets kids send messages to a select group of friends and has built-in video games.
And several companies are coming out with toys that can be "updated" by downloading new files and information from the Net.
LeapFrog Toys, a division of Knowledge Kids Enterprises, is showing off a line of educational toys that can download files from the Net to keep themselves up to date. For instance, after a child has played with the LeapZone TurboTwist Spelling device for a while, parents can connect it to the Web and upload the data stored on the machine. The system will then analyse the child's performance and send back a new lesson focusing on whatever trouble the child may be having. The line is priced between $35 and $50.
Tiger's Yahoo! Cam, a $60 palm-sized digital camera, lets kids take colour photos and comes bundled with software to help them upload it to a Web site or attach it to email.
The communications feature is one of the more popular trends this year. It's also given toy companies a way to market more high-tech toys to girls.
Hasbro, Radica Games and Tiger Electronics are all coming out with electronic devices that let girls send messages to one another. As Byrne pointed out, the "play" in these products, in this case passing notes, isn't new, but the medium is.
"The child's imagination is still at the centre of all the play," he said. "I don't think kids think technology alone is cool. It's connectivity, social interaction. Instead of passing notes under a desk you beam across the room. It's still the same behaviour problem that lands you in detention, it's just a different medium."
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