Walking talking toys are fair play

Walking talking toys are fair playPhillip K Dick’s book that was to become the film Blade Runner anticipated a future full of electronic pets. Tom Foremski visited a major toy fair in New York to see if fiction was again becoming fact
Silicon-based lifeforms that can talk, grunt like wrestlers and keep you company in your old age are just some of the characters being developed by electronics companies as they turn their attention to the electronic toy market.
As microprocessors and other ICs become cheaper, companies are increasingly attracted to the toy market due to its promise of high volumes.  
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The biggest splash created last year was Tiger Electronics’ Furby, which quickly became one of the most sought after toys as children were attracted to its interactive features.
And Intel, which normally focuses on computer markets, recently announced two products to kick off its Intel Play family of interactive toys. The joint venture with US toy maker Mattel introduced the Intel Play X3 Microscope and the Intel Play Me2Cam digital camera, with both priced at $99.
Both toys require the use of a PC. With the X3 microscope, children can capture images of objects and using the PC magnify and edit them. The Me2Cam digital video camera lets children do the same with video images.
“The Intel Play products apply technology in imaginative ways that continue to make PCs the centre of learning and play for kids today,” said Ronald Whittier, senior vice-president for Intel.
For Intel, the goal is to help develop applications that encourage people to buy and use PCs. And since graphics and video images require fairly sophisticated PCs, it is also a way to encourage buyers of higher-end machines – a constant goal for Intel.
Mattel is a natural partner for Intel because it is focusing its efforts on what it calls intelligent toys. Last year, it acquired The Learning Company which has a large catalogue of CD-ROM titles aimed at kids. Mattel is using these titles and technologies to create interactive toys with CD-ROM based applications for children.
At the 1999 Toy Fair in New York, many electronic toys were introduced with sophisticated radio control systems and new types of interactivity. For example Adrenalin Interactive introduced a range of interactive figures based on wrestlers from the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). The figures can be linked to a special Web site and voices of wrestlers along with their special catch phrases can be downloaded and played through the figures.
“These toys have an almost unlimited ability to be refreshed and customised by WWF fans of all ages as they download new phrases and sound effects from the WWF Web site,” said Jay Smith, CEO of Adrenalin.
Zowie Intertainment, a spin-off from the Interval Research research labs, introduced at the toy fair products in its Playzones family. Linked to a PC, kids can manipulate the arms and legs of figures while their PC on-screen counterparts act in a virtual adventure. CD-ROM software controls the interface between the physical figures and the computer generated counterparts.
Microsoft has been an early pioneer in this smart toy category, with Barney that interacts with PC-based software and also with digital data beamed from TV programmes. Microsoft is extending this line of what it calls Actimates, with plans for similar toys based on Teletubbies characters.
Initial sales of these toy types have not been great but Microsoft recently helped to boost sales by cutting Actimate prices from $99 to $49. Market analysts expect this category of network toys to grow significantly over the next few years.
US market research firm Forrester Research estimates that the 1998 market for network toys was worth about $200m and will rise to $352m this year. But by 2002, Forrester says this market will be worth $1.9bn.
Forrester notes that the growth of the network toy market has been helped by the introduction of sub-$1,000 PCs. And with more than one half of US households now having at least one PC, toy makers have a large installed base of PCs that can run smart toys.
But companies are not just targeting children. Japanese electronics makers are investigating the production of sophisticated electronic toys that respond to people and act as electronic pets. The health benefits of people owning pets have been well documented especially among elderly people who live longer and have happier lives if they own pets.
With Japan’s population rapidly ageing, and with the small living spaces there, it is not practical for people to own living pets. But if electronics pets could be created that share many of the characteristics of real animals, then the same health benefits might be realised by their owners.
Sony is just one Japanese company that is experimenting with “entertainment robots” that mimic dogs and cats. The challenge is to develop realistic behaviour such as playfulness and animal emotions.
In some ways, the popular Tamagotchi toys featuring LCD-based pets that need to be fed and cared for, provide an example of a concept that could be scaled up into robotic form.
Sony has been experimenting with a platform based on its popular Playstation video games console, using relatively cheap microprocessors.
The company is also developing additional components such as a tiny camera and is hoping to attract software developers to address the artificial intelligence aspect that could breath life into its entertainment robots.
The strange world painted by science-fiction writer Phillip K Dick in which electronic pets are the most sought after luxury could be closer than we thought.

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