BEING SMART ABOUT
What Manufacturers Should Do to Stay on Top of This Evolving Toy Category by SEAN MCGOWAN, founder, SMG Leisure TOYS FEATURING TECH ELEMENTS SUCH as sound chips, programmability, or the ability to communicate with other toys are not new, but for the last few years, smart toys are eating up more and more shelf space. In this piece, I will look at several aspects of this burgeoning toy category. Some of these toys are truly groundbreaking, but both parents and toy manufacturers need to exercise a great deal of caution and forethought to make sure these toys safely deliver their intended benefit. For the purpose of this discussion, I'll clarify what I mean by
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Sphero's BB-8 app-enabled droid launched last year and allows kids to control the robotic ball with an app.
18 THE TOY BOOK | May/June 2016 | TOYBOOK.COM
“smart toy,” or, just as usefully, what I do not mean. I am not talking about toys designed to make your baby, toddler, or preschooler smarter. Instead, the term “smart toy” focuses on the smartness of the toy itself.
fact, they were really just running on pre-set clocks, testing for a small number of changes the user made, even though they seemed to respond to the user, grow (or die, if you didn’t “feed” them), and interact.
NOT-SO-SMART TOYS Products typified by Tickle Me Elmo, where a child presses a button (or issues a voice command) and the toy runs through a pre-programmed routine, are not considered smart toys. Some people in the industry refer to these as “watch me toys,” but I have provocatively called them “toys that play with themselves.” These toys don't make anyone smarter, nor do they use technology that is all that impressive. The broad category of electronic learning aids, which encompasses educational offerings from companies like LeapFrog and VTech, are not smart toys either, even though some of the tech-infused devices are pretty smart, and many of them are now connected either to each other or to the web. Smart toys interact with other devices and/or programs, such as apps, other toys, or other devices in the area. These toys often have a capacity to learn about their environments and to respond—sometimes in subtle ways—to changes in the environment. In some ways, products like Furby, Tamagotchi, and Webkins were the precursors to smart toys. They weren’t actually all that smart, especially compared to today’s smart toys. But I consider them to be the original smart toys because they appeared to be interactive, learn over time, and respond to changes in the environment. In
SMART TOYS 1.0 The toys I call smart toys 1.0 were effectively crude physical extensions of computer programs and apps. Think of those early apptivities—or app-based toys—that allowed kids to scan in some physical product (a little toy car, a figurine, a plastic gun) to cause changes in an app on a tablet or smartphone. In hindsight, these were little more than appbased games that invited the consumer to use a physical object other than their fingers to control the action. Why was this a good idea? It wasn’t, but it gave toymakers and retailers a way to be involved in a segment of the industry that was rapidly evolving away from them. In my view, the fundamental problem with these toys is that they didn’t allow kids to have more fun than they would have simply playing with the app. SMART TOYS 2.0 The toys I consider smart toys 2.0 are those that promote interaction between a tablet or a smartphone and the physical toy, to create an experience that is very different from—and better than—that which can be enjoyed without that interaction. Perhaps the best example is Furby Boom, but Sphero’s robotic ball (and its best-selling BB-8 version) and Ooboly also fit into this category. Plus, the entire toys-to-life sub-category pioneered by Activision’s Skylanders and now also populated by Nintendo’s amiibo, and LEGO and Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment’s LEGO Dimensions, are also part of smart toys
Many of us are traveling to Denver for the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association’s (ASTRA’s) Marketplace & Academy trade show, and in...