- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 19, 2002

Jolly Old St. Nicholas probably will deliver some clever toys on Christmas morning along with the stuffed animals and Flexible Flyers, says Flora Gill Jacobs, founder and director of Washington Dolls' House and Toy Museum in Northwest.
It hasn't just been in recent years that high-tech toys have appeared on holiday wish lists. Mrs. Jacobs says technology has influenced toys throughout history. For instance, Jacques de Vaucanson, one of the most important inventors in the history of automatic toys, began experimenting in 1725 by making flying angels with spring-driven and clockwork mechanisms. About 1737, he created the Duck, an artificial duck made of gilded copper that moved like a living being.
"There have always been toys of some complexity," Mrs. Jacobs says. "Considering the world we live in, it's very likely that the toys will evolve with technology."
Many of the toys given as gifts this holiday season are likely to use technology similar to that found in other high-tech gadgets. The challenge to designers is to incorporate it into toys in a seamless and affordable manner.
Martin Wilson, vice president of global product development for VTech in Norwalk, Conn., says Smarty's Workshop, one of the company's most popular toys, is based on recognition technology. For more than 25 years, VTech has been a pioneer in electronic learning products, developing toys for children from birth to preteen that foster creativity.
Smarty's Workshop, which is meant for preschoolers 3 and older, allows children to pretend to build their own creations with the encouragement of Smarty, a carpenter robot that moves, talks and dances. Smarty senses the area of the workbench in which children are playing and asks challenging questions based on the location.
When a child touches one of the tools to something on the tool bench, such as a hammer to a nail, the software, which is run by an internal microchip, interprets the interaction. Designers gave each part of the tool bench a specific address or signature that accesses the curriculum in the microchip associated with the area that is touched. The action is reflected in Smarty's dialogue or presentations on the liquid-crystal display project screen, which is the same type of screen used on Palm Pilots to read and enter information.
The toy also incorporates random-response technology so the experience of playing with the workbench is never the same twice, Mr. Wilson says. Designers created programs in the microchip that know when the same area on the tool bench is pressed repeatedly. When this happens, the system varies Smarty's vocal response and the pictures on the display screen.
"We don't use technology for technology's sake," Mr. Wilson says. "No one buys a toy for technology, like someone buying the latest cell phone or Palm Pilot, but for play and fun."
Apart from sheer enjoyment, technological toys can offer creative ways of learning, says Jim Marggraff, executive vice president of worldwide content at LeapFrog Enterprises Inc. in Emeryville, Calif. He holds a master's degree in electrical engineering and computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
The Explorer, one of the company's interactive talking globes, shares such information about countries around the world as populations, music, currency, highest elevations and capitals. It also features games based on these facts. The product operates through LeapFrog's patented NearTouch technology, which Mr. Marggraff pioneered. The technology makes flat or 3-D items touch-responsive from as far as one-eighth of an inch away from the surface.
The globe functions through an electronic stylus pen that serves as an antenna. A radio-frequency signal travels from the globe to the pen. The pen resolves the location through the base of the globe, which houses a microchip that knows where the pen is pointing. The chip also is responsible for sending the initial signal from the inside of the globe as well as creating other sound effects. Mr. Marggraff is pleased that this process takes place without its user dwelling on the science.
"The best use of technology is an application which makes the technology invisible," he says. "It creates an engaging and effective learning experience."
John Sosoka, chief technology officer of Neurosmith in Long Beach, Calif., says he aims to make toys that don't showcase technology. He appreciates it only when it is used to accomplish a task. For instance, Musini, a Neurosmith toy, converts a child's energy into music, creating a unique musical composition. It is designed for children 2 and older and functions through a patented MagicSensor that detects low-frequency vibrations emitted from a child's movements and translates them into the speed of the music played by the toy.
When a child takes a step next to Musini, the floor vibrates, which moves sound waves to the microphone inside the toy. Only low frequencies of sound activate the toy; high frequencies do not affect the MagicSensor. When stimulated, the microphone vibrates and sends electric waves to the microprocessor inside Musini, which converts the pulses of the footsteps into the tempo of the music.
If the child accidentally steps on the toy while dancing around it, parents shouldn't be concerned, Mr. Sosoka says. Musini, like Neurosmith's other toys, is created from high-impact plastic, which prevents the toys from being broken easily.
"Everything is rounded or truncated," he says. "We set it up so we as adults can stand on it without it breaking. We expect kids will do all kinds of things to it."
Although the complicated nature of technological toys usually raises their cost above that of simpler toys, advances in cutting-edge science continually allow the prices of slightly older technologies to decrease, which makes them affordable to include in toys, says Ron Baker, vice president of product engineering at Fisher-Price in East Aurora, N.Y.
For instance, Kasey the Kinderbot Learning System, which is meant for children ages 3 to 7, helps youngsters develop important academic, social and physical skills. He does everything from dance the hokey pokey to recite the ABCs. To accomplish this, he features microchips that provide such functions as music, speech and sound effects.
Similar to how the computer industry continues to increase the amount of information that can be placed on one microchip, Mr. Baker says, Fisher-Price designers use special techniques to compress large amounts of content on the microchips in the toy. Therefore, Kasey is able to speak about 3,500 sentences. Additional software cartridges are available to extend learning in areas such as reading, math, science and foreign languages.
"You probably don't realize you're playing with technology when you're playing with him," Mr. Baker says. "He has a fun and engaging voice. He doesn't sound robotic and stiff."

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