CSR Issue: June/July 2001 (Links valid as of that
From Tom Edison to Stu Pickles, great
inventors have always used kids' toys as a testing ground
for their inventions. Edison, for instance, created a
talking doll, which used his phonograph technology.
Unfortunately, it bombed after just one week on the market.
Besides being expensive, the doll's talking mechanism-- a
steel stylus on a hard wax cylinder-- wore out
Smart toy "train wrecks" are common even
today. Remember when Compaq and Fisher-Price teamed up to
create a line of software and toy computer controllers
Tools ? The gadgets looked great,
but the software never delivered decent play value; not to
mention the marketing challenge of getting parents to
understand that these new toys needed to plug into a PC. Two
years later, Mattel's $90 Talk
With Me Barbie also bombed. Like
Edison's talking doll, getting Barbie working was too
expensive and complex. And of course, there was
Actimates Barney, which confirmed
the fact that nothing can get between a kid and his
Despite its history, the forecast isn't
gloomy for the smart toy market. For one, there's no
shortage of them, which seems to indicate that someone is
making money. This year at E3, gizmos that plug into
computers and game consoles were popping up everywhere. USB
ports on computers have helped alleviate some installation
hassles, and microprocessors have continued to increase in
power while dropping in price.
A SMART TOY PRIMER: HOW TO SORT OUT THE
WINNERS FROM THE REST
If you're looking for interactive children's products, it's
easy to get confused these days. Increasingly, the
distinction between software and toys is blurring. Take one
of the largest toy manufacturers, Fisher-Price. "Three years
ago, microprocessor-enhanced toys, or the electronic toy
category, made up 25% of our line and had their own place at
retail," said Jerry Perez, Executive Vice President of
Marketing for Fisher-Price. "Today, it makes up 60% of our
line." Also clear is that there's plenty of money to be
made-- or lost-- in technology-enabled toys. The difference
between winning or losing is determined by how well you know
the technology and how well you know kids. Here are some
common sense observations on what makes an effective smart
1. The best smart toys complement
classic play patterns.
According to LEGO's Helen Shwe, "Our research suggests
that children can benefit from smart toys when they are
designed to be toys first and smart second." Other experts
agree. "All the technology in the world doesn't mean
anything unless it delivers a valid play experience for the
kid," says Chris Byrne, editor of The Toy Report. Brian
Weinstock, VP of Creative at Trendmasters told us that
"technology in toys should always be for one reason only--
to be a blast-- and that is the very reason toys exist in
the first place."
2. Look for balance between the toy
and its technology.
Kids love controllers that enable them to drive a car,
an airplane or a pirate ship, but are disappointed if the
software component of the experience runs short on content.
This problem happens most when a developer sinks all the
resources into the physical toy, and adds the software as an
afterthought. There's a good lesson to be learned from Zowie
Entertainment, who attempted to market two computer
playsets, including Redbeard
Pirate's Quest. Kids loved the
playset, but soon ran out of places to steer their ship in
the accompanying software. The
3-D Cruiser from Little Tikes and
KB Gear shares the same problem. The controller looks great,
but the cars are hard to steer and there's not a lot to do.
On the other hand, when there's good chemistry between the
toy and the software, the payoff can be huge. Back in 1998,
for example, many people doubted the validity of the
Workshop CD-ROM Playset, but
today there are over 25 different playsets that work in much
the same way.
3. Simplicity is genius.
The best designers know that kids don't read or listen
to directions. They just want to get started. Tiger's
Clips come with the batteries
just put in the earpiece and push the
button. Such ease of use is elegant and a good business
4. Yes Dear, price does matter.
"There are a lot of toys out there that I call Dodge
crammed with technology and priced out of reach
of average people" said Toy Report's Byrne. "Developers need
to remember that the average price of a toy is $9." Byrne
cites Hasbro's $95 My
Real Baby as an example. Made in
conjunction with iRobot Corporation, the doll is real-sized
and crammed with motors, sensors, and RAM. But all the
technology in the world doesn't mean anything unless it
translates into a meaningful play experience for the child.
Lisa Mancusco, a researcher at Fisher-Price agrees. "It
always comes down to price value. We scrutinize everything
and a lot of times we simply don't put the expensive
5. Kids demand nothing less than power
Some things just don't go out of style, and quality is
one of them. Music
Blocks, a toy for babies,
succeeded last year because it combined ease of use with
good quality Mozart. Durability, power, quality-- these are
essential characteristics of products that make it in the
6. "No computer required" is becoming
As the cost of RAM and ROM drops, publishers have more
options, including the ability to bypass the computer or
console altogether. We've heard teachers raving about Leap
Pad because it frees them from
the computer lab and the complexities of a computer
operating system. Other toys use the television set as a
display device to deliver the play experience. One of the
best of these is the $50 Play
TV Sports Series (Radica), which
uses a baseball bat (or ping pong paddle, etc.) as the
7. Understand the rechargeable
It's an exciting concept
to download from the web
new content or customization features-- but this technology
is in the very earliest of stages. The Internet/toy
connection has to be incredibly simple for parents to
effectively use the technology. Keep an eye on LeapFrog's
Link and Hasbro's
MY Barney to see how these
rechargeable toys fare.
8. Child development leads the
The companies that know the most about kids' play and
play patterns are also the ones making the most successful
smart toys. LEGO, Fisher-Price and Hasbro are heavily
involved with research on interactive technology and are
applying it to traditional toys. Miriam Kelley, Director of
Preschool and Design at Fisher-Price, says "We're very aware
that technology can enhance the classic things that we know
about children's play. For example, we can give them what we
call 'finger food' with toys, by letting their actions make
elevator doors open and close or lights go on and off. The
trick is to put in just enough technology to scaffold the
play rather than to channel the play."
9. Kids are smarter than most toy
Too many of the toys we've tested assume children are
clueless when it comes to knowledge of colors, numbers,
letters and shapes. Some are too passive, forgetting that
kids like to be in the driver's seat. The best electronic
experiences don't underestimate children and are highly
controllable, providing a variety of learning possibilities
with precise, instant feedback. An excellent example of this
is the Fisher-Price/Microsoft Intelli-Table.
10. Remember the Beanie
The fundamental reasons that children come to toys in
the first place are to pretend and have fun. "Kids are
smarter than the smart toys" said Larry Schwarz, CEO of
Rumpus, a company specializing in low-tech toys. "Our toys
will be around long after the battery runs out." Keep in
mind, too, that the largest per capita spending on any
stuffed toy happened during the dawn of the Smart Toy age.
In 1998, sales of Beanie Babies hit the billion dollar mark,
making Ty, Inc. the leading toy manufacturer of the year.
Today, Ty Warner is the 55th richest guy in America-- and he
did it with no batteries, wires or microchips.
- 1. The best smart toys complement classic play
- 2. Look for balance between the toy and its
- 3. Simplicity is genius.
- 4. Yes Dear, price does matter.
- 5. Kids demand nothing less than power and
- 6. "No computer required" is becoming more
- 7. Understand the rechargeable toy.
- 8. Child development leads the way.
- 9. Kids are smarter than most toy
- designers think
- 10. Remember the Beanie Baby
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