- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 28, 2008


This year’s American International Toy Fair continued to demonstrate an evolution in play and learning. Manufacturers now routinely rely on multiple levels of technology to deliver fun and inspiration to a child.

Just one of the many releases presented on the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center’s floor looks to motivate American children with the wonders of robotics engineering.

“The United States is facing a huge challenge right now in that not enough kids are getting interested in science and technology,” says Joel Carter, vice president of marketing for Innovation First. “We graduate about 60,000 engineers every year to fill about 150,000 jobs. Kids look at entertainment and sports for careers, but not enough folks are telling them to go after engineer degrees.”

In August, his company will offer the VEX RCR Mini design kit ($100), which includes 300 parts and is about half the price of Lego’s popular Mindstorm system. It has wireless controls, and one of the configurations can shoot pingpong balls. The kit also integrates into the larger VEX Robotics Design Systems ($299).

According to Mr. Carter, Innovation First’s mission is to give children a hands-on experience at an early age to build their first robot and grow them through an entire ecosystem of robotics.

Here’s more of the wide range of items that debuted at this year’s toy fair:

• Conquering a book becomes much easier for youngsters with Leap Frog’s Tag Reading System ($49.99; $13.99 for additional books, available this summer). Children 4 to 8 years old use a high-tech pen on any of the Tag-friendly titles, such as “The Little Engine That Could” or “Miss Spider’s Tea Party,” to hear words, sentences and musical effects through its tiny speaker.

A tiny infrared camera on the tip of the pen uses optical pattern recognition technology to deliver the magic. The device also plugs into Macs or PCs for parents to monitor a child’s progress as well as download content.

• Irwin Toys’ My Electronic Double or ME2 ($34.99, this summer) offers a child entrance to a virtual world where he can create an avatar, play games and hang out with friends. However, the key to thriving online is the ME2’s hand-held device, which uses a tri-axis sensor to monitor a child’s movement and reward him for being active. So junior can’t just sit around and exist in a computer, he must move around to accumulate points. Then, he can go back online to unlock new adventures, items and games.

• Mega Brands continues its buildable action-figure line this year and now includes online components for its NEO Shifters Web Battlers ($24.99, available this fall). The 7-inch-tall constructible warriors have both wireless download and networking capabilities. The Shifters use a sensor mechanism on their chest for wireless communication with a computer to share content and empower an online avatar. One initiative Mega Brands also hopes to include will allow children to bring one of their creations to a toy store and have it download or upload data with a Shifter display.

• Anyone with a spare $3,000 can jump aboard Flight Motion Simulator’s Dreamflyer and experience a jarring adventure as they virtually take to the skies. Using a 3-by-6-foot aluminum frame and pilot’s seat to slightly resemble a cockpit, the device mimics gravitational movements to offer an experience for flight lovers. It’s bundled with Saitek’s throttle, control stick and rudder pedals, but does not include flat-screen monitors (up to three can be added), the computer or software (my trip used Microsoft’s Flight Simulator). So, let’s say anyone with a spare $5,000 can become an armchair pilot.

Check out Joseph Szadkowski’s Zadzooks blog (https://video1.washingtontimes.com/zadzooks/) for additional video coverage of high-tech toys, including Corgi’s hydrogen-powered RC vehicle and Fisher-Price’s latest interactive Elmo. 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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