From an electricity-generating soccer ball to a doll that chats and remembers previous conversations, a sampling of new tech toys take play beyond the screen and into the real world – all while augmenting education and play.
Just when many parents feared they’d lost their children to the screen, concerned that their growing brains might be stunted from too many hours crushing gumdrops, tech toy developers have come to the rescue.
Capitalizing on recent advances in technology, developers are now creating toys designed to build brain power and skills. Unsuspecting children — Shhhh! — continue to believe it’s all fun and games.
It’s not that technology is new to the industry. As Mark Francis, venture lead in new business initiatives for Intel explained, toys have housed technology for decades.
“What is new is the interactivity that is occurring as a physical object — toy, doll, stuffed animal, robot or figurine — is embedded with technology and coupled with digital assets — tablets, smart phone apps, etc. — in a manner to create very immersive and fun play experiences,” Francis said.
It is this convergence of the digital world with the physical — the “phygital” as some have dubbed it — that’s revolutionizing the world of play. As a result, these toys teach the next generation valuable skills like problem solving and computer programming.
Here are 15 cool new toys and companies that enhance the play-and-learning experience:
On the Move
Soccket is a soccer ball that harnesses energy through play. As the ball is kicked and rolled around, it generates power, which is stored in a battery that can be used to charge up to five portable lights. Pilot programs in Mexico and Nigeria showed these lights enabling children to complete their homework after dark.
An LED Tree Swing lights up and changes color via remote control. Thanks to electroluminescent tape fitted around the seat edge and RGB LEDs attached to the bottom, kids are inspired to play with gradient and flash effects, and to keep moving after dark.
Hello Barbie is a Wi-Fi-enabled version of the iconic doll that can chat, tell jokes, play interactive games and learn about a child’s likes and dislikes. The doll adapts over time, using gathered information in future conversations.
Activision’s Skylanders is a toys-to-life video game where users place character figures on a “Portal to Power” pad that reads their ID tags via radio signal. It also allows them to import a virtual version of that character into the video game.
Compatible with iOS, Android and Windows, Sphero 2.0 is a waterproof, pet-proof, app-enabled ball that allows kids to bring the spirit of a video game into the real world. They can create obstacle courses, engage in multi-player games and more. Sphero teaches kids how to program, while sharpening skills in math and science.
Dash and Dot are toy robots that make computer programming accessible and fun for children. Using an iPad or Android tablet, Dash and Dot can be programmed to perform movements, detect objects or follow complex sequences of instructions, such as navigating through an obstacle course.
Balanced on two wheels, Mip is a multifunctional robot, powered by an iOS or Android smartphone that responds to hand gestures and can drive, play games and more. It also has a personality that responds positively to praise but gets miffed if pushed over.
Lego Mindstorms EV3 comes with enough bricks and parts to create a variety of cool robot configurations that can walk, talk, think and more. Users program their creation to complete missions via an easy-to-use, icon-based computer interface.
Enhancing the Virtual Reality Experience
Google Cardboard is a do-it-yourself virtual reality kit made of cardboard. It’s also a super affordable way to engage in an immersive digital experience.
Disney’s Playmation gives kids the opportunity to join the Avengers team, fighting Ultron and other villains using wearables technology and connected toys. Not only will these toy heroes and villains interact with one another, they also respond to the wearer’s gear, which allows for some seriously epic good-versus-evil battles.
Scheduled to be released this fall, the Mattel Stereoscope is a plastic virtual reality headset that is a step up from the cardboard model and perfect for kids. It will be compatible with both iOS and Androids.
Kano is a build-your-own-computer kit for ages 6 to 14 that includes a Raspberry Pi among its snap-together pieces. Kids learn to code and can run apps and surf the web using a TV as a monitor.
littleBits is a platform of easy-to-use modular electronics blocks for ages 8 to infinity that can snap together to create fun machines. In the process, users hone STEM/STEAM skills and can even develop a prototype for a new toy or invention.
The Business of Toy Tech
Bot Bash Party brainchild of four-time RoboGames champion Zachary Lytle, brings a robot showdown to your kid’s next birthday party. Complete with a troop of fighting, grinding and slicing remote-controlled bots and a fighting arena, a technician teaches partygoers about torque, traction and other scientific concepts.
Two Bit Circus invents and develops toys and games that blend physical objects with the digital world to create high-energy fun. They then take this crazy assortment of toys and games on the road to share in public exhibitions — including hands-on play — through their Steam Carnival productions.
This is just the start of a whole new generation of smart toys that combine the physical and digital worlds. Advancing technology has the power to take kids beyond the screen and make play more immersive, interactive and educational.
“As we develop and release products such as Intel Edison, D1000, and iterations of Intel Curie, we are able to offer the toy and gaming companies technologies, services and support that can re-imagine play and ‘tech toys’ in a very compelling way,” said Francis, who is leading the company’s efforts in the smart toy and game market.
“We can make ‘smart toys’ smart in a way that few companies can.”
Two of these technologies are Intel Edison and Intel Curie, small-sized, feature-packed development platforms, with built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
“With the Intel Edison and devices like it, hardware hackers, entrepreneurs and makers can experiment with prototyping more easily and affordably than ever before,” said Rex St. John, a tech evangelist for Intel.
Having witnessed an explosion of creativity at recent hackathons and makerspaces, St. John believes that these tiny devices will lead to the next multi-billion dollar opportunities for entrepreneurs and software developers.
Some of those entrepreneurs and developers may be the kids playing with the toys above.
“Users learn how physical objects and actions can impact digital play, and vice versa,” said Francis, who believes play inspires people to invent their own games.
“Everyone can become a creator,” he said.