The world came to play in New York last week. But the object was serious business.
More than 1,500 toymakers from 31 nations converged on the Big Apple to display their wares at the four-day American International Toy Fair in midtown Manhattan. The sheer volume of toys on display might have wearied the most energetic boy or girl -- if children had actually been allowed inside. The thousands of grown-ups who were able to attend sized up the latest offerings from the $30 billion American toy industry.
Every year, manufacturers introduce at least 5,000 new toys at the fair. "Some of them are high technology toys, some are new building blocks, some are new ways to play with preschoolers and infants, some are classics toys," says Reyne Rice, a trends specialist for the Toy Industry Association.
Among the more popular toys of 2005 are clever re-workings of games children everywhere love to play. For example, Wild Planet of San Francisco was demonstrating Tek Tag, an electronic version of the classic chase and touch game. Each player slips on an armband outfitted with a visual sensor called a pod. The pod can be set to any number, representing how many "lives" a player is allowed in this electronic game of tag.
"Imagine an invisible magnetic field around this pod," says Wild Planet's Kim Bratcher. "When someone comes in contact with it, it registers a hit." An alarm also sounds. "That's a warning sign to let you know I have one 'life' left," she says. "If you have multiple kids on the playground wearing pods, when one kid gets down to one life, the alarm will sound and everyone's going to focus on that one person and tag him out first."
Even with all the gadgetry in today's toys, Reyne Rice has noticed that consumers are also buying more of what she calls basic toys this year. "Things like building blocks, coloring crayons, arts and crafts, vehicles that you push along, sports toys," she says. "And today, people are also looking for social and emotional intelligence for the children."
Social interaction and fantasy play are the concepts behind Only Hearts Club, a new line of fashion dolls from a California company. "It's a group of six girls who got together to form a friendship club," says OHC Group president Len Simonian. "Their pledge to one another was to listen to their hearts and try to do the right thing. And so we have books. We have themes. Each of the girls has a personality and interests. It's about the good part of growing up and being a little girl and having fun with your friends and being nice to other people."
Some toys manage to combine the fantasy potential of a doll with cutting edge technology. The Toy Fair's 2005 Prize for Most Innovative Toy went to the Robosapien V2, a black and white robot about 44 centimeters tall. The designer of Robosapien, Mark Tilden, calls it the world's first truly interactive full-sized robot.
"What I mean by 'truly interactive' is that, although he has a remote control with more buttons on it than Darth Vader's underpants, the fact is he's a robot designed to pay attention to his user," Mr. Tilden says. "I can grab him, move him by his hands, and every time he says 'okay,' he's memorizing the individual body positions. And you'll notice that the robot is able to parrot back the functions perfectly."
Mr. Tilden presses a button that enables Robosapien to do a disco dance he had managed to teach the figure. "We think companionship robotics are going to be a very big thing in the near future," he predicts. "Let's face it, we want a personal robot friend with an 'off' switch. Because he has a visual apparatus, he's one of the very first robots with the ability to sit down with you and watch cartoons.
Apparently, Robosapien also pays attention to those cartoons. Mr. Tilden confides that the robot seems to like Marge Simpson's hairdo.