Tech toys minus the video screen

Tech toys minus the video screen

When we talk about children’s access to digital technology, we often focus on “screen time,” but that term is a bit antiquated. Across the industry, the Internet is escaping the screen.

Today thermostats, bathroom scales, automobiles and even slow cookers can be controlled and updated through a live connection with the online world. Tomorrow, our toys will have similar powers, too. And that digital connection may forever alter how we think about play.

“We want to draw kids out of a two-dimensional screen, to blend a hands-on physical experience with an app, and make something new come to life,” said Vikas Gupta, a co-founder and the chief executive of Wonder Workshop, a startup that makes Dash and Dot, two programmable toy robots that will begin shipping to early backers this holiday season.

Dash and Dot are controlled by a mobile app, but they can also be taught to understand and react to events that happen in the real world - to play a real tune on a xylophone, say, or to bark in response to a child’s clap.

Wonder Workshop is on the vanguard of a trend that threatens to overrun much of the traditional, mass-manufactured toy business. The Internet is infiltrating just about everything your child plays with, promising to make transform it.

Because connected toys can acquire new capabilities over time, the Internet might even make toys less disposable. As soon as your child becomes bored with a toy, it might be able to do something new.

Some manufacturers, including Gupta, say digital toys could also revolutionise education. While disguised as playthings, toys like the Dash robot are teaching children the basics of computer programming.

But most important, the Internetification of toys might finally break the spell of the screen. When a generic toy like a ball or a car is sprinkled with digital pixie dust, it becomes something like a real-life video game. But because these are physical gadgets that move in the real world, they often make for a far more powerful experience than a game rendered on a two-dimensional tablet.

“I think the heart of the toy industry is going to move from purely physical toys to what I call 'phygital play,'” said Richard Gottlieb, the chief executive of the consulting company Global Toy Experts.

Forgive Gottlieb’s ugly coinage; the convergence he is describing between physical and digital toys is a powerful force, and it is already being felt by large manufacturers. He notes that one of the world’s most popular series of action figures is an add-on for a video game, “Skylanders: Trap Team,” which is published by Activision. In the game, physical action figures can be added to the on-screen action, each taking on a different role in game play.

“A few years from now, it won’t be unusual to have that kind of play,” Gottlieb said. “I think that will be the norm.”Along with my 4-year-old son and 1 1/2-year-old daughter, I’ve been playing with some of the latest such connected toys: the Dash and Dot robots, which sell for $228 (Rs 14,130) as a pair, or $169 (Rs 10,473) for the larger Dash; Anki Drive, a robotic, artificially intelligent slot-car track, whose starter pack costs $149.99 (Rs 9,296); and Sphero 2.0 and Ollie, an app-controlled ball and a rolling robot, which go for $99 (Rs 6,135) each. And I found these toys thoroughly absorbing.

The first thing I noticed is that because they are powered by software, they can offer different experiences to various ages.

For instance, the Dash robot comes with four different apps, each meant for a slightly different age. The simplest apps work like remote controls, allowing any child who can draw on the screen to move the Dash along a path or to command the robot to change colors or make animal sounds.

The more advanced apps offer capabilities that approach a full-functioning programming language. Older children will be able to get the robot to interpret its sensor data as it traverses a room and to perform different actions based on that data.

All that might sound a little dry, but the Dash dresses up its capabilities in approachability and fun. When my children spent much of one Saturday morning playing with the robot’s music app - in which musical notes on the screen prompt the robot to play a real tune on its xylophone - it was clear to them that this was a toy, not a mere educational tool.

My son was also thoroughly captivated with the Anki Drive racing car set, which uses software to give each car on the track a different personality and set of powers, similar to the characters you would see in an on-screen video game. There are evil cars, canny cars, cars with special weapons and cars that prefer to go on the defence.

“There used to be this growing gap between the toy side and the video game side, where there was a depth of character and personality and interaction in the virtual side that was never possible in physical toys,” said Boris Sofman, a co-founder of Anki and its chief executive.

One of the ways toymakers have fought the power of video games is through licensing and merchandising; they make toys in the images of characters from TV and movies to imbue some personality into otherwise static figurines. But Sofman says apps allow toymakers to create physical toys with their own personalities that aren’t necessarily borrowed from other media.“You can start thinking about this as Pixar in 3-D,” he said. “You have this blank slate where you can build whatever you like, because you have software controlling it.”

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