- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2009

NEW YORK | Technology plays an ever-expanding role in a child’s life, and toy companies are responding by incorporating more of it in their product lineups.

The digital evolution of the toy industry was on full display at this year’s American International Toy Fair, where buyers pored over products from more than 1,000 companies and the aisles were stuffed with toys that combined technology with traditional play patterns.

The five-day event held last week at the Javits Center in Manhattan and at private showrooms throughout New York City showcased the toys that stores will be stocking next holiday season.

The continuing trend toward technology came as no surprise to Eric Levin, president of Techno Source, a Hong Kong company that specializes in hand-held gaming and innovations involving the Rubik’s cube.

Mr. Levin called today’s youth “digital natives.”

“We have to keep in context that kids are surrounded by technology everywhere they go,” he said. “From their crib, there’s a video camera staring at them and a microphone listening to them. They have no concept that there is a traditional toy or tech toy. The only thing they are looking at is it fun or not fun.”

His company is promoting toys that encourage online creativity and enhance that experience.

One toy called Printies taps into children’s love of creating digital avatars while fulfilling their desire to collect real plush toys.

The kit, scheduled to debut this fall for less than $20, lets children create a creature through an online studio. Using a color printer and special paper, they can produce their own stuffed animals.

Techno Sources’ Smiley Central Studio is a free Web site that generates customized emoticons, a staple in the world of e-mail and text messaging.

Video games continue to compete with more traditional toys for the attention of youngsters and now account for $21.33 billion in annual U.S. sales versus $21.64 billion for toys, according to 2008 figures compiled by the NPD Group, a marketing research firm based in Port Washington, N.Y. Toy companies must continue to tap into a child’s instinctual knowledge of technology to capture his imagination.

“We are competing with some of the best minds in the world in the video game industry, so we have to become smarter and smarter when it comes to presenting traditional toys,” said Dodd Harris, vice president of sales for Uncle Milton, a 62-year-old company based in Westlake Village, Calif., that creates science toys with an edge.

“They have to have an electronic component that remains compelling and challenging to owners beyond what used to pass as a just-good offering.”

His company really concentrated on the mind this year — specifically, “the force” of Star Wars fame.

With a Star Wars license in hand, which Mr. Harris calls a “safe harbor for retailers and manufacturers” in hard economic times, Uncle Milton has developed the Force Trainer.

The game uses electroencephalography, a technology in widespread use in the medical industry.

As a young Jedi knight wears his wireless headset, he uses brain waves to move a ball within a 12-inch-tall tube through 15 levels of training. The technology was prohibitively expensive just a few years ago, but the Force Trainer is expected this fall at a suggested retail price of $129.99.

“Five years ago, if I said we were going to do this, there would have been howls,” Mr. Harris said.

Web-connected toys represent another growing niche, accounting for more than $500 million in sales for the 12 months ending in November, according to NPD. This category includes plush toys connected to a computer via a USB port and dolls that come with a code to unlock an online digital prize.

Kiz, a startup based in Alpharetta, Ga., offers a child entrance to an online world via a USB drive key the company includes with a series of action figures and toy vehicles ($24.99 each).

“Two years ago [when] we started researching this, we saw a huge lack of innovation in the market,” said Chris Moreau, chairman and CEO of Kiz and former chief technology officer for Blockbuster Entertainment.

His company employs four levels of encryption to prevent other people from using a child’s unique USB key. If the key is lost or stolen, it won’t work when it is plugged into another computer.

The key gives children access to a 3-D environment to play educational games and engage in free-flow chat with other players.

Mr. Moreau acknowledged that he is not the first to create a controlled online world, but “with something like this, it is not always best to be the first ones,” he said. “It’s best to learn from others’ mistakes and bring it all together and build a better product.”

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