Today is the final day of the Toy Industry Association's 109th annual Toy Fair, wrapping up in New York with a power surge of touchscreens, apps and other tech-based entertainment (or edutainment) items designed to engage young minds — and open their elders' wallets. At a time when toy sales have been stagnant for the past several years, major toymakers and upstarts alike were banking on the whiz bang of tablets, interactivity, and apps to lift the industry from its doldrums.
This year's Toy of the Year at the fair is symbolic of the direction the industry is taking: LeapFrog's LeapPad Explorer Tablet, a $99 kid's version of a computer tablet introduced last February that was so popular retailers couldn't keep it in stock during the 2011 holiday selling season. LeapPad also won "Educational Toy of the Year" and "Preschool Toy of the Year."
The two leading toymakers, Hasbro and Mattel, both debuted app-related products at the Toy Fair. Hasbro updated its clasic board game, "The Game of Life," by promoting a version ("The Game of Life zAPPed," which is available now for $25) that resides on an iPad — literally. Download the app, place your iPad on the middle of the board and it serves as the "spinner" as swell as adding interactive games and videos to the fun.
Mattel's big entry into app-land is "Apptivity," a whole new toy line that turns the iPad into a live board game, by integrating such popular toys as Barbie dolls and Hot Wheel cars with tablet-based games. A child can race one of the new Hot Wheel cars on the screen of an iPad, or use Apptivity to enhance Cut the Rope, Fruit Ninja and Angry Birds game play.
"Today's children do not differentiate between toy and device as technology is expected in their favorite playthings," stated Chuck Scothon, SVP of North America marketing for Mattel. "What Mattel brings to this convergence is a rich understanding of both the art and science of play."
All the apps, electronics and tablets are turning Toy Fair into a mini Consumer Electronics Show for young techies. Kurio from TechnoSource, at $199, boasts a 7-inch screen, the ability to expand its memory from 4GB up to 32 GB, and an Android operating system. Oregon Scientific's MEEP! also has a 7-inch color touchscreen as well as the added capability of WiFi connectivity (plus parental controls to monitor content). The MEEP!, for children ages 6 and older, will connect to musical instruments and other accessories.
Integrating technology, of course, has been a landmark of traditional toys for some time, a necessity to grab attention from video games and other computer-based entertainment. Sometimes, however, technology is really just an excuse to upgrade an old classic. This year, Hasbro put a new spin on Monopoly by adding virtual banking to an app-based version of the board game. Mattel introduced a "Digital Camera Barbie," which will be released over the summer. That's right, for 50 bucks, parents can buy their child a Barbie that takes up to 100 digital photos and shows them on a screen built in to Barbie's shirt — a move that may mollify adults concerned about predators and Barbie Video Girl Doll.
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, sales of traditional toys have not only declined because of competition from computers and television — some experts "cite a more fundamental problem: a lack of creativity by toy companies, who have fallen into a rut of making the same dolls, cars and toy guns, year after year." The Toy Industry aims to reverse that perception.
Putting a positive spin on the use of technology, though, Adrienne Appell of the Toy Industry Association argues that "Toymakers continue to innovate at the speed of light to keep up with trends in other areas — from pop culture to technology — because they know that kids want to be a part of the mix and mimic what's happening in the world around them. ... Toymakers are using technology to enhance classic play patterns, not erase them. Physical toys remain integral to the play experience; in many cases, companies have created traditional toys that interact with popular devices that are already in so many homes."
Check the Toy Fair blog for video reports from the floor at this year's show.