February 16, 2006 12:07 PM PST
Technology infiltrates toyland
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I also gave Lego high marks for its newly updated Mindstorm build-it-yourself robotics kit. The "brain" of the new robot is the NXT brick, which runs a 32-bit microprocessor that can be programmed from a PC or a Mac and loaded onto the robot via a USB cable or Bluetooth wireless connection. The previous version of the product only had an 8-bit "brain."
The 571-piece kit comes with four sensors, two of which are Lego's new Ultrasonic Sensors, which become the eyes of the robot, measuring distance and movements, as well as detecting objects. New Sound Sensors are the ears of the robot, allowing creations to react to sound commands and audio patterns, and also recognize tones. The new kit costs about $250 and is designed for children age 10 or older.
Lego wasn't the only company touting robots. Hitec Robotics of Poway, Calif., showed its Robonova-1 humanoid biped robot for the first time in the United States. The company said the robot is a big hit in Japan, where enthusiasts build robots and enter them in competitions to battle one another. Slightly more sophisticated than the Lego Mindstorm robot, the Robonova-1 kit comes with a 128-bit processor. The price tag is also more sophisticated: about $1,000 a pop.
Not everything showcased at Toy Fair was even really a toy, but that didn't make it any less cool for me. Boston-based start-up Mimoco displayed its fun and quirky Mimobots--designer USB flash-drives ranging in capacity from 256MB ($60) to 2GB ($185)--that are decorated to look like characters from designer toy makers. The first two series, known as Cosmos and goSeries, feature nine characters designed by artist Yahid "Serial Killer" Rodriguez. A new artist series was launched at Toy Fair featuring characters from contemporary artists like Tado and Shawnimal Smith, a Chicago-based designer who hand-makes over 400 plush characters. As a special bonus, the drives are preloaded with animation from the artist whose character is depicted on the flash drive.
"Our customers are all designers and artists," said Kristin Weckworth, owner of the Magic Pony, a boutique selling creative products in Toronto. "They're always using flash drives, and they love the idea of storing their stuff on these really cool little characters. The Mimobots sold really well during the holiday season. We're definitely looking for more."
While I love technology as much as the next person, I was disappointed to see how some manufacturers loaded toys with so much technology it's likely to zap the creativity out of kids. Whatever happened to pretending a lunch box was a TV? Or making the sound of the fire engine yourself instead of just pushing a button to have it make the sound for you?
Take Mattel's Pixel Chix. Kids don't even have to make real-life friends anymore or play with real dolls. This game--which isn't much of a game--costs about $30 and features a virtual girlfriend who can be directed to eat, sleep and "hang out" at the touch of a button. If she is ignored, she packs her bags and leaves the screen. This year Mattel has added a new house and car for the Pixel Chix to drive around.
And then there's Mattel's Let's Dance Barbie, a robotic ballerina, priced at $54.99, that follows a child's dance move. Hasbro also introduced a 40-inch tall robotic pony, called Butterscotch, that reacts to the touch of a kid's hand.
It seems like toys have gotten so sophisticated, kids simply push buttons or wave their arms around a bit, then watch their toys do the playing for them.
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