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Toy robots do your bidding

Robotic dogs you can train fetch attention at Toy Fair 2000 -- but how about a programmable Lego-droid?

A casual bystander could easily mistake this year's International Toy Fair in New York for an episode of "The Jetsons".

Tons of toys are available that can interact with children either through robotics and computer chips or by updating their content from the Internet. You can even program some of them.

Sony was showing off AIBO (short for artificial intelligence robot), its robot dog that first fetched attention in the United States at Comdex. AIBO, priced at $2,500 (£1,550), may not be the perfect thing for a child, but its popularity among adults has spawned a number of scaled-down imitators.

Tiger Electronics, a division of Hasbro, has developed several interactive dogs and a few other "animals" that will react to a child. The I-Cybie dog, priced at $150, moves its head, tail and legs, and reacts to sound and light, as well as touch sensors. Kids can also program voice commands into a remote control and then order a dog to sit, lay down and roll over on command.

Tiger's Spike is more of a puppy. The pooch -- priced at $69.95 and available this fall -- walks backward and forward and left and right. It also reacts to its owner's voice, but, like a puppy, it has to be trained to respond.

Tiger has also gotten a license to develop an interactive Yoda, based on the character from "Star Wars." Special plastics were used to form the face of the doll, which forms expressions when it talks. The doll interacts with a light sabre, included with the toy, teaching a child how to manoeuvre the toy. Tiger had Frank Oz, who voiced the character in the movie, record the sounds for the toy, which will be priced at $39.99 and will be available in May.

Fisher-Price is also developing a robot puppy that can be trained to react to a child's voice. Children can rename the dog and train it to respond to the new name.

Robot dogs are one thing, but what about actual robots? Lego, which first rolled out a robotic version of its popular building toy two years ago, has come up with some new versions this year.

Lego Mindstorms products use a central microcomputer encased within the standard Lego casing. The device is connected to other Lego pieces that include gears and output motors, as well as light and touch sensors. The child can write a program that is downloaded to the robot.

New this year is the Vision Command System, priced at $99 and available for the 2000 holiday season. The kit includes a video camera that connects to the PC, so kids can see what their robot is looking at. It can also be configured to snap photos and take videos. For example, a child can program a "guard robot" for the door to his or her room that can detect motion and take a picture of the "intruder" for the child to look at later.

The Mindstorms products have developed a following among older "kids", especially since the company made its software development kit available online, allowing users to come up with their own commands for the central computer.

But Lego has also developed robotic products for younger children. The MyBot will work with the Duplo products, aimed at kids four to six years old. Kids can use it to build a robot, plane or a car. When they plug in an action figure and move the device, the toys will respond with sounds and other affects.

K'Nex Industries is also developing a robotic version of its construction toy set, which uses a series of basic shapes and connectors that can be combined with motors and gears. CyberK'Nex kits, priced between $50 and $150, let kids build robots that include a pre-programmed cartridge giving the robots a personality consisting of special moves and sounds. The cartridges can also be updated over the Internet, giving the dog robot a cat personality, for example.

K'Nex founder Joel Glickman said the company eventually plans to allow kids to develop their own programs for the cartridges. "It's just more tools in the box for kids to play with," he said. "A lot of our audience have computers at home. This allows them to tie into that."

Several other companies are hoping to tap into that built-in audience, offering products that update themselves by hooking onto the Net.

Hasbro will release the $49 eSpecially My Barney this fall. The plush toy dinosaur can plug into a PC, where it can download customised data from a special Web site. Parents can program the toy at the www.mybarney.com site with comments and phrases specific to their child, allowing the toy to wish a child a happy birthday, for example.

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