Toys focus on communication

Companies are demonstrating products that will offer kids the ability to send e-mail or instant messages without computers or ISPs.

NEW YORK -- Teenagers love to talk to their friends -- even when they have nothing to say -- and now the toy industry is working on ways to make them even more proficient in pursuing that rite of passage.

Teenagers have already been using the Internet to communicate for a while -- they're some of the most frequent users of chat rooms and instant messaging. And at this year's International Toy Fair in New York, companies are demonstrating products that will offer them the ability to send e-mail or instant messages without computers or Internet service providers.

The Girl Tech division at Radica Games Ltd. (Nasdaq: RADA) is preparing Surfer Girl, a $19 CD-ROM that links girls to a special Web site where girls can chat, surf the Web and access specialized content. The site has extensive parental controls and provides a "safe community" for girls -- for example, requiring outside mail to get parental approval before girls' can access it, said Girl Tech founder and vice president Janese Swanson.

"The whole idea behind Surfer Girl is that it's a community of girls where they can come together," she said.

A companion toy, the $79 Pocket Com, allows girls to download much of the content from the site onto a handheld device. Girls can send messages to one another through the devices using infrared technology. And they can upload and download e-mail, games and other content from the Web site onto the Pocket Coms.

Pocket Com uses a radio frequency to transmit voice messages. Pocket Com will cost $24.99 and is expected to be available in the fall.

Snipping the PC tether
While the Surfer Girl product requires girls to own a PC and have an Internet connection, a new device from Tiger Electronics Ltd., a division of Hasbro Inc. (NYSE: HAS) has teamed with NetZero Inc. (Nasdaq: NZRO) to develop a device that lets kids send e-mail by plugging into standard phone lines.

M'e-mail is a handheld device that mimics cell phones. Kids can plug in a smart card and send a message that's stored on the card. Each device comes with three cards and will be priced at $29.99. It will be available in the fall.

The Lightning Mail product lets kids enter messages through an on-screen keyboard or write directly on the touch-screen itself. Kids can also wirelessly send messages to other devices within 50 feet.

The Cybiko Wireless Intertainment System has a 150-foot range indoors. It uses a 900MHz radio frequency digital-spread spectrum to communicate with other devices and can detect when another device enters its range. The $149 handheld systems can be preprogrammed to recognize friends added to a buddy list or another user whose profile matches criteria set up by the child.

Besides wireless messaging, the Cybiko lets kids communicate through chat and e-mail, which is uploaded and downloaded through a computer. It also contains a planner application and interactive games, including a virtual pet, the Cy-B.

The Cy-B can be sent over to visit on a friend's system, said Cybiko President Donald Wisniewski. As the Cy-Bs age, they get jobs, buy food and make investments, so a child can have its virtual pet earn money by selling "food" to the child's friends pets.

Cybiko CEO David Yang, who previously worked with Abbyy USA, an OCR software firm, said he initially wanted to develop a device for adult but found that the biggest response came from kids.

"There's this great technology out there, but (the industry is) just not doing it for kids," Wisniewski said.

The system has an expansion port. The company also has plans to release an MP3 add-on later this year and a wireless modem next year.

Cybiko will publish a software development kit online and allow kids to write their own games and submit them to the company, which plans to make the games available for download on its Web site.