Pet ownership is a rite of passage for many children (and families), but it can also be a real hassle. After all, the vast majority of pets must be fed, cleaned up after, groomed, etc. They require constant care and semi-regular attentiveness, in other words, and that can be a real challenge for young ones (and some adults, too), who may not be used to that level of responsibility.
As such, it’s hardly surprising that toy pets—not to be confused with pet toys—are incredibly popular right now. These artificial animals offer a lot of the same play possibilities as the dogs, cats, birds, etc., they were modeled after, but with less work on the part of caretakers. At the recent Sweet Suite event that was part of Blogger Bash 15 (both events were founded by Laurie Schacht, the president and chief toy officer of Adventure Publishing Group, which publishes The Toy Book), we got to see many of the latest toy pets from companies such as Spin Master, Moose Toys, and WowWee. Thanks to modern technology, the idea of machines standing in for real-life, flesh and blood companions no longer seems like the stuff of bad sci-fi, but a practical, tantalizing possibility.
Compared to the days when the most advanced toy pets could only walk a few steps and were mildly interactive at best, the genre has come a long way. For example, the Zoomer Kitty, the latest in robot cats from Spin Master, has sensors in its head and face, which allow it to actually respond to stimuli around it. It even has huge eyes that can follow its owner around. Another toy pet, the Clever Keet, from Moose Toys, has the ability to record and repeat phrases in a bird’s voice, and to replay them mashed up together.
More exotic toy pet options include the Miposaur, from WowWee, which may resemble a dinosaur, but has settings that can make it quite dog-like. The user can make it chase a trackball, take it for a walk, and make it beg for its food. Even micro-sized items such as Zuru‘s Robo Turtle feature sophisticated technology that fosters interactive play: Thanks to carbon sensors on their shells, users can drop them in water or touch them lightly, which will make them start swimming or walking, respectively.
The amount of effort put into making these toy pets behave in ways that resemble the original animals is impressive. However, from what we heard, that also makes them more accessible for audiences, which might otherwise find robot animals too imposing. For example, Zoomer Kitty has a dangling toy that it will chase, but the reason for the accessory was that without it, some test users had trouble figuring out how to play with their robot cat. This seems to imply that despite being machines, we instinctively relate to these toys as we would their flesh-and-blood counterparts.
So it makes sense that Clever Keet sings, eats seeds, and admires itself in the mirror on its play set: These are the types of behaviors that a real-life parakeet might do. Similarly, it makes sense that Robo Turtles do the same things that real-life turtles do at their most compelling, which is walk across the ground and swim (Kids can also place the Robo Turtle in a tasteful eco-system for display purposes, as they might do with actual turtles). While some toy pets might not look like any real-world animal we’ve ever seen—remember, the most dog-like creature we’ve mentioned so far looks like a dinosaur—what’s important is that they can be played with in ways that are familiar.
Recently, a tech toy company executive told me that robots would one day become the equivalent of real-life companions–e.g., pets–thanks to programmable behavior. The majority of toy pets I’ve seen haven’t quite hit that plateau yet; meanwhile, speaking as a pet owner myself, I cannot help but have doubts as to whether a toy pet can ever truly replace the genuine article.
Admittedly, going back to the initial point of young ones (and some adults, too) not necessarily being ready for the responsibility of pet ownership, I do see how this type of toy could serve as a suitable training ground–and one that doesn’t necessarily end with a kid losing interest and the parents taking care of the pet themselves. But even then, it’s not much of a comparison. Taking into account the prices of some toy pets, it still doesn’t begin to approach the cost of, say, a real cat over any period of time. And you can shut off a Zoomer Kitty. It’s never going to wake you up in the middle of the night by leaping onto your vital organs, or scratch at your door and meow incessantly until you shoo it away. It isn’t going to knock glasses off the side table, or spread itself out across your laptop keyboard, so you can’t finish writing the last sentence of your op-ed and leave for work.
It isn’t going to hack up hairballs all over the kitchen. Or need somebody to check up on it whenever you go out of town. Or that hairball thing again.
I wonder if Zoomer Kitty comes in Tuxedo.
For more commentary from Phil, check back often. Views expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Toy Book as a whole. We hope that you will share your comments and feedback below. Until next time!