'Smart' tech toys for kids of all ages

Lego Mindstorm's Vision Command System is an example of toys and technology converging. According to industry insiders, this section of the toy market is due to explode
Written by Richard Shim, Contributor

Legos have a soft spot in most people's hearts because of all the fantasies they built with them. And because they were viewed as educational toys, parents were happy with them, too.

Of late your favorite plastic pieces have been going high tech. Over the last year, Lego has been incorporating robot technology with its plastic pieces. Its latest addition, Vision Command System, due out in September, enhances PC-related programmability and encourages kids to build and program with PCs.

Lego has been working on toys with technology since the early 1980s, but in 1997 the company felt the timing was right to make them available.

Lego Mindstorms is the division of Lego that develops new technologies for kids to build and program robots that move and act however they want.

"The idea has always fit with the Lego philosophy -- give kids the tools to create in an effort to better understand the world around. And technology is increasingly becoming a part of that world," said Linda Dalton, a vice president at Lego. "And once the price of technology became reasonable in the marketplace, it made sense."

Technology in toys is growing into one of the biggest topics this year, according to toy industry insiders.

Diane Cardinale, public information manager for the Toy Manufacturers Association, feels that this is because technology is becoming such a big part of people's lives.

"Toys mirror what's going on in society," said Cardinale.

One product that captures the role of personal digital assistants (PDAs) is the Cybiko, which is a PDA for the younger set. Children can use it to communicate with other children, organise their schedules, download games from the Cybiko site through a PC, and keep names and numbers of friends.

According to Reyne Rice, director of toy services at the NPD Group, toys such as the Vision Command System and the Cybiko are part of an emerging trend in the toy business called smart toys.

"Smart toys are toys that attach to, interact with or download from a computer. And the more kids are exposed to computers, the more they become part of their role play and eventually their lifestyle as they grow up," said Rice.

And the more they become part of the lives of kids, the more the category is expected to grow.

According to figures from the NPD Group, at the end of 1999 the smart toy segment made up 2.5 percent of the $23bn toy market.

The NPD Group just started tracking the segment last year, but Rice expects that the segment, which is expected to double by the end of 2000, will explode in the next couple of years.

Part of the reason for that is because it's encouraged by both kids and their parents. For the kids it's fun, and for the parents it's deemed as education.

"We expect our kids to be smarter than us, and with these toys they can challenge their abilities, familiarise themselves with technology and educate themselves," said Rice.

Legos have always held their popularity in the particularly ephemeral toy industry.

"It's the nature of the toy industry. Tamagotchi is big one year, then everyone forgets about it," said Cardinale, "but what Lego has been good at is targeting a larger audience and upgrading its toys."

The $99 Vision Command System targets kids 12 years and older. The upcoming addition to the Lego line allows kids to use a PC to program creations to respond to light, color and motion.

Lego robotic toys that are already on the market include the Robotics Invention and Discovery System and the Droid Developer Kit.

All the products are open-ended, meaning creations are only limited by what the user decides to do with them. Lego's Dalton said she has heard of Lego owners who have built prototypes of medical devices, robots that can water your plants while you're away and even a robot to clean a toilet.

Future plans for Lego include products to reach younger audiences. Voice-related products would be a logical next project for the company, said Dalton, but she wouldn't comment further.

Intel has joined the toy technology market, working with Mattel to release the Intel Play Me2Cam and the QX3 Computer Microscope.

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