- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2005

NEW YORK - Cuddly, creepy and cool describe the dazzling array of high-tech products displayed at this year’s American International Toy Fair.

For almost an entire week last month, buyers from around the world met with companies in private showrooms at New York’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center to close deals on items such as Fantastic Four action figures, cellular-phone-recharging flashlights and radio-controlled blimps.

“Creepy and cool” especially fits the new creation from WowWee, a consumer electronics company known for last year’s popular Robosapien droid.

In its showroom, veteran special-effects creature creator George York was on hand to demonstrate his new robotic entity, dubbed the Facetronics Chimpanzee, which brings the expertise of his Hollywood magic into an animal lover’s living room.

The hairy $130 head, which should be available by the end of the year, sits atop a display base. The chimp reminded me of a “Night Gallery” episode in the making as it duplicated the sounds and movements of its real primate brethren.

The chimp has full puppeteering actions manipulated with a hand-held controller or in automatic mode. Using sound and touch sensors and an infrared vision system, it can interact eerily with viewers — using detailed facial and eye movements as it emotes moods and sounds that should supply a sufficient quotient of nightmares.

Of course, an animatronic ape head was going to be tough for other toy companies to top, but I did manage to find a smattering of other products at the fair that merge science, technology and entertainment.

• The most mind-boggling electronic learning device seen this year came from the company known for revolutionizing the interactive storybook. LeapFrog Enterprises’ The Fly (shipping this fall, $99.99) is a pen-shaped computer that writes on specially designed paper and then interacts directly on the medium.

Specialized chip sets expand optical sensor technology to its limits as the user holds the sound-enhanced writing implement and performs magic such as drawing a keyboard and then playing a song by touching the pen point to the keys, sketching a calculator and working through math problems, or writing a word and hearing it translated into Spanish.

The wonder pen also can be upgraded via miniapplication cards ($7.99 to $34.99) that extend its potential via an interactive collectible baseball-playing-card game co-developed by sports-card giant Upper Deck.

• Filmmaker George Lucas’ opus to the Skywalker family concludes in May with the film “Star Wars: Episode III, Revenge of the Sith,” and Hasbro will be unleashing a torrent of toys to accompany the film’s release. The crowning interactive piece combines plug-and-play technology with a Jedi Knight’s most feared weapon.

The Lightsaber Battle Game (shipping this spring, $49.99) requires the player to plug a cantaloupe-size unit into a television’s A/V jacks. Through infrared magic, the player controls a wireless sword as it sizzles across the screen. Players first can hone skills against droids before taking on familiar Jedi and Sith characters, leading to the ultimate confrontation with Darth Vader.

• Oregon Scientific brings a David Letterman bit to life with its Helmet Cam (shipping in June, $99.99). The 4-inch-long spherical video camera is made to capture the first-person exploits of any extreme athlete atop a skateboard, snowboard or bike. The shockproof, splash-proof unit comes with 32MB of on-board memory that can be expanded through an SD card. Of course, software and a USB cable are included to bring cinema verite masterpieces to the owner’s PC.

• The world of stick figures comes to digital life with Radica’s electronic hand-held toy, Cube World (shipping this fall, $34.99 for two cubes). Within each of a quartet of roughly 2-inch-square colored boxes exists one of four pixilated individuals, defined by their use of a stick, ball, rope or dog.

Owners first use three action buttons to play games with their new LCD pals. Things get a bit more complicated if the cube happens to fall over — the stick figure gets mad and may shake his fist at his new owner. Additionally, and most important, when cubes are connected, the stick figures interact with one another — for example, stick man and ball man might play baseball. More amazing, if cubes are disconnected while one figure is hanging out in another’s cube, he is stuck there until the cubes are reconnected.

• Interactive doll innovator Playmates Toys brought its latest soft and cuddly creation, the Amazing Pets Cold Nose Puppies (shipping this fall, $34.99). These cute plush pooches are available in four breeds — cocker spaniel, beagle, Yorkshire terrier and golden retriever — and use the company’s “So Real” proprietary technology.

When owners rub the creature’s belly or pet its head, the furry fellow responds incrementally with faster tail wags and louder barks. Extra love leads to the real breakthrough of internal refrigeration magic, which gives the happy pup a cold, wet nose for a more realistic smooch.

• An obvious choice for a traditional toy to make the leap to the world of video gaming arrives with Etch a Sketch Wired (shipping this fall, $24.99). Ohio Arts’ hand-held device connects directly to a television via an 8-foot A/V cord and takes the virtual place of the 45-year-old creative palette. Artists simply use a pair of toggling control buttons to sketch, connect the dots and trace pictures and even can use slick tools such as a plane skywriting option to create temporary art. Of course, once done with a design, users simply shake the hand-held, not the television, to clear the screen.

Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002; or send e-mail (jszadkowski@washington times.com).

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