by Reyne Rice, CEO and founder, ToyTrends and Robin Raskin, founder, Living in Digital Times

At CES 2019, the focus was all about the tech in toys.  At Toy Fair New York, the equation flipped. It was all about the toys that were tech-centric.  As we hunted for the best of Toy Fair we found lots of technology working under the hood to create approachable, interactive and affordable tech solutions, designed especially to encourage kids to explore and interact. And this year “Kidults” got in on the action.  Here’s some of the emerging trends and hot products for the season ahead.

Screen-Free technology teaches kids coding:

Screen-free or screenless technology may sound oxymoronic, but with more parents, educators and caregivers concerned with their kid’s use of screen time, toy manufacturers paid attention and created a variety of tech skill play experiences minus the screens.

Toy Fair Tech

  • Code ‘n Learn Kinderbot by Fisher Price combines coding with other early learning skills like letters, counting, and shape recognition. Kids learn to “program” Kinderbot’s movements and change the robot’s looks through interchangeable accessories.  Three ways to play include free coding, learning challenges, and a “secret code” booklet to unlock more learning.
  • Mech 5 by Elenco offers a unique approach to coding. There’s a moveable “coding wheel” at the center of this robot where users program the robot by snapping coding pegs into the wheel. Coding peg combinations instruct the robot to move forward, backward, turn, spin or pause.
  • Kids First Coding and Robotics by Thames & Kosmos lets kids create simple brick-like constructions and then code by laying down a sequence of physical “code cards”. The robot drives over the code cards while it’s optical scanner reads the directions and loads the program. The robot can move in different directions, activate accessories, light up its LED, play sounds, and respond to different function cards.

Tech encourages physical play:

Using technology as an accessory to the physical play experience, many products create a unique reason for kids to get up and move.

  • The Harry Potter Invisibility Cloak by Wow! Stuff is destined to be a winner this holiday season. The cloak’s inner lining acts as a green screen allowing its wearer to make things appear and disappear.  It comes with a tripod to hold your smartphone. You run the magic app and record the magic. (Phone not included.)
  • Thinkway’s Toy Story 4 collection combines huggable action figures with interactive play that kids can control. When a parent steps into the room, kids can make the characters drop to the floor.  It’s the kid’s voice that springs them back to life. Buzz and Woody will respond to the kids’ voice- activated controls and will encourage kids to re-live the film’s iconic moments.

Socially-Able Toys meet the YouTube generation:

Some of kids’ favorite online activity involves watching YouTube unboxing videos and young YouTube stars revealing new play experiences. Here are some of the ways toy manufacturers have tapped into this fascination.

Toy Fair Tech: The YouTube Stars

  • Ryan’s World by Bonkers Toys: Ryan, the seven year old YouTube unboxing phenomena has expanded his personal brand with a line of toys modelled in his own image. Ryan Surprise eggs may include Alien Ryan, Robo Ryan, Combo Panda or Red TItan. It’s the unboxing of the egg that’s the charm.
  • ZURU teamed up with Tyler “Ninja” Blevins – the #1 gaming influencer across all social media, known as the highest scorer in Fortnite, to introduce a line of exclusive rapid-fire dart blasters, for their X-Shot “Ninja” Blasters range. Other major toy manufacturers such as Jazwares, Hasbro and Wicked Cool Toys have licensed the Fortnite name for key 2019 product launches. Ninja is also on-board with Wicked Cool for toys other than blasters.
  • #SNAPSTAR dolls and SNAPSTAR Studio App, by YULU, cater to “social influencer” girls who want to engage in social media, and create social media content, by providing green screen technology and tips for creating shareable videos with their fashion-centric customizable dolls. It’s like a fashion-focused Instagram in a safe kid-friendly environment.
  • Hatchimals Hatchtopia Life by Spin Master has created another layer of engaging and interactive play for kids who collect this unstoppable brand.  Now, kids can collect new mini characters and, using a product-specific code, unlock new Hatchtopia characters online, play games and enter the online world of Hatchtopia Life.

STEM toys emphasize  the  “A” for STEAM:

By adding “A” for Art into the STEM equation, new toys encourage artistic options, such as color chemistry and music to add to the science of learning.

  • Crayola Color Chemistry Arctic Lab: Crayola’s Color Chemistry kits are designed for kids to experiment with color through chemistry. This new Arctic kit includes 50 winter-based science experiments like making snow on trees and color-changing snowflake window decals, using temperature, texture and color to chemically change the outcomes.
  • Science of Music by Alex Brands encourages kids to create their own life-size sturdy cardboard guitar and add music tech components, all for under $30. Various clever and easy-to-use buttons and circuitry add frets and strings, and include musical back beats, distortion, and options for either acoustic or electric guitar.

Price continues to impress on toys under $50:

With parents very aware of their kids often short attention spans, and need for instant gratification, they are protecting their wallets by introducing kids to cost-effective bites of tech, for everyday play, versus selecting expensive tech options, to access new technologies.

Low Tech

  • The Baby Shark phenomenon has captured kids hearts worldwide with its catchy YouTube song and dance coverage.  PinkFong has translated this phenomenon into toys by WowWee, with a Fingerlings edition of Baby Shark ($14.99), mini singing plush, and a talking plush hand-puppet of the Baby Shark characters that can sing either slow-mo or double-speed, depending on how fast kids open the shark’s mouth, to sing the song.
  • Novio by Spin Master is a simple robot capable of learning movements and actions taught by kids, using simple hand gestures.  It costs only $19.95
  • ZURU unleashed their affordable and time-saving innovation: Bunch O Balloons Self-Inflating and Self-Sealing Party Balloons. This latest party prep device fills, ties and strings 40 balloons in only 40 seconds.  It works with regular air or helium air, and the balloons are also reusable. Genius. Even the factory producing the device is run by robots, for precision manufacturing. Bunch O Balloons Starter Pack with device, 48 balloons and helium tank adapter $29.99. Refill balloon packs available separately. Simple tech for a big wow pay-off.

Intergenerational Play Expands and Kidults join the fun.

The latest issue of The Pop Insider describes multiple product lines and got-to-have-it merchandise for kids, kidults and nostalgia collectors of their favorite brands and characters.  “Kidult” was coined in January 2019 at the Trend Gallery at Spielwarenmesse in Nuremberg to include playful adult fans that love to collect, assemble and showcase their action figures, costumes and role play, brick collections, crafts, and more.

Pictionary Air and Lie Detector

  • Lie Detector Game by Hasbro uses voice analysis technology built into this adult party game to detect subtleties in a person’s voice to help you discover who’s telling the truth, and who’s not. While taking turns, the player in the hot seat is asked uncomfortable Yes or No questions. Tell the truth and you’ll earn points, but a lie gives the point to your opponent. The player with the most points wins.
  • Pictionary Air by Mattel, is a modern twist to the popular Pictionary game. The Pictionary Air mobile app is paired with a special light-up pen, and the drawer illustrates their clue in the air. The app captures the air drawing in real time and displays the drawn masterpiece on screen. Live drawings can be recorded and saved for playback. When playing this game with many people, technophiles will love projecting the Pictionary Air app onto a large screen, with their Apple TV or Chromecast (not included).

Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality and Mixed Reality Extend Play

2019 expands augmented reality play, to encourage layered play options for kids.  These toys can be played with or without the tech components, but the thinking is that the play is enhanced with AR apps to activate collections and creations. More play value for the money.

Augmented Reality

  • The popular Untamed range from WowWee has added a new Augmented Reality twist on play for its new mini-collectible range of dinos, wolves, raptors and more. Untamed Mad Lab Minis bury its collectibles in test tube vials filled with compounds such as sand, slime and clay. It’s an unboxing experience that forces you to root around your test tube for your find.  The collection contains 34 pop-n-swap creatures. When combined with a free app from Happy Giant, the Untamed Mad Lab Minis world allows kids to morph their mini-collections into new creatures and games.
  • LEGO launched a new world of augmented reality (AR) enhanced play experiences for kids, ages 7+, with their Hidden Side collection of Lego adventures. The theme is “creepy” and “ghostly” as the main characters Jack and Parker in the accompanying app can detect spirits and ghosts inside the physical Lego haunted sites.  They’ll solve puzzles and play games as they explore the haunted realms. Hidden Side is available in multiple price ranges with structures like a haunted school and cemeteries. Future links to the LEGO Life gallery, will also encourage digital and social media play.
  • Professor Maxwell’s 4D Galaxy by Spice Box is the newest in a clever set of products that combine physical books, game pieces and augmented reality to encourage kids to interact with Professor Maxwell. Following the well-received Chef 4D game, this latest game is set in the inter-galactic world and includes a series of interactive games and apps, that explore the galaxy.  Kids will wear the included VR headset which comes to life when a mobile phone is placed inside of it, and kids can interact in full VR mode.

2019 is the year when tech becomes more affordable and more interactive, encouraging kids with so many play options, that year-round play is definitely available and encouraged! Stay tuned for more wrap-ups as the year progresses, when even more tech play is revealed for the second half of 2019.

Reyne Rice serves as co-president of the International Toy Trade Magazine Association (ITMA). She is a global trend hunter, journalist, and contributing editor for multiple international publications, including The Toy Book and the Spirit of Play, from New York. She’s also a keynote speaker at more than 20 global industry conferences annually. She founded her own consultancy, Toy Trends, in 2003, and can be reached at reyne@reynerice.com.
Robin Raskin is founder and CEO of Living in Digital Times, a conference and event company that looks at the intersection of technology and lifestyle. Her company partners with the CTA and CES to produce Kids and Family Tech programming, among others. The former editor of PC Magazine, FamilyPC, and other tech publications, including Yahoo!Tech, Raskin has spent her career exploring technology, published numerous books, and served as a broadcast commentator for major networks.