by Reyne Rice, CEO and founder, ToyTrends and Robin Raskin, founder, Living in Digital Times
By no means do kids’ toys dominate the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES)—the world’s largest tradeshow in Las Vegas for technology and innovation—landscape; but there are always some great harbingers of what’s next in kids’ technology-driven toys.
This year’s lesson for the toy industry is to put the focus on play and off of tech for tech’s sake. Here are a few of the important trends we saw rising to the top.
Look Ma, No Screens
Parents are increasingly more aware—and distraught—about their kids’ screen time, and they are looking for alternatives. One of the biggest trends at CES this year was the preponderance of toys that don’t rely on screens. Sphero partnered with Specdrums to create app-enabled wearable rings in which users can tap out tunes using a colorful musical mat to bridge harmonies, compose songs, and create beats. Kids can master the Harry Potter Kano Coding Kit to build a magic wand, and then use the wand to create spells and wizardry based on simple coding skills. Storytelling and role-playing are the themes behind Coding Critters, from Learning Resources, which engage the youngest kids with cute characters and magnetic manipulatives for early coding preparedness skills.
Tech Gets More Physical
Whether it’s a Razor scooter for navigating the outdoors or Storyball, a new physical ball that interacts with kids and builds custom stories in a mission-based world, this year’s new tech toys focus on the whole child. Both physical and outdoor play take the lead, and tech becomes more of an adjunct to the experience. Hasbro’s Nerf Laser Ops Pro also illustrates this concept. It’s a home laser tag system with tech that allows players to blast an infrared beam as far as 300 feet. It encourages team or solo play with smart GPS tracking for high-tech fun.
Perhaps the most controversial toys are the ones that connect to the internet and use voice or other input to enable kids to talk to other play pals. Take the furry Woobo, which has a small screen sewn into a Teletubby-like creature. Woobo is a tech-powered version of a kid’s imaginary friend. It helps instill good behavior (such as brushing teeth), answers questions, and plays games with kids. The new Amazon Echo Dot Kids listens and offers kids an age-appropriate Alexa experience. Kids can use their voices to access 300 audible children’s books, select from a playlist of thousands of songs, and play games. Parents appreciate the robust parental controls, Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPA) compliance, and the device’s understanding of kid-speak.
Over the last few years, games that teach kids how to code were deemed almost essential for preparing kids for future jobs. Pai Technologies launched PaiBots, with which kids can create and program robots, and then bring them to life with digital tools in the app, including augmented reality puzzles. Elenco’s Snap Circuits BRIC Structures combines manipulative blocks and circuit-connecting tech to encourage young kids to code. MicroDuino’s Itty Bitty Buggy offers five ways to build and program a buggy powered by an inexpensive Arduino chip. GT Wonderboy is a pint-sized robot companion with smartphone-like connectivity, facial recognition, and even translation skills. The robot engages in conversation, recognizes objects, dances, lets kids look up facts, and effortlessly translates 13 different languages. The pioneers at Wonder Workshop enhance their coding toys with a line of accessories and tools designed to extend the programming capabilities and the shelf life of these toys.
Adding Art to STEM with STEAM
By adding Art to the STEM equation, STEAM toys promote artistic abilities and more right brain options to complement the left brain focus of STEM. A CES 2019 Award winner, Beyond Tablets adds a musical sequence of training tools to compose musical melodies. Language arts were also on display at the show with Square Panda’s tactile alphabet letters, combined with gaming to create fun ways for kids to learn words and identify linguistic sounds. Storytelling is the theme behind Lunii, My Fabulous Storyteller device, which empowers kids as young as age 3 to create stories by choosing characters, the location, the theme, and objects to populate their audio stories.
The Price Must Be Right
Kids grow and change—so does technology. Parents are getting wise to the fact that tech toys don’t have the hand-me-down factor that traditional toys have. Tech toys are also a lot pricier than a board game or jigsaw puzzle. The upshot is that parents are now a bit wary of $500 robots or coding kits. We’re seeing more fiscally conservative parents happy to spend money on things that delight. Kids can add a digital element when playing with their Fingerlings Untamed T. rex and raptor dinosaurs from an alliance between WowWee and HappyGiant for the Untamed Battle ARena app. These interactive creatures are available at retail for $15 each and have additional features, such as the free augmented reality app, that offer a new level of play. Mattel announced a new version of Pictionary with its own high-tech touch that it’ll unveil at Toy Fair New York.
Now that people are living longer, there’s a new generation of kids wanting to play with their elders, and companies are noticing. Video game fans are reveling in the availability of retro gaming and old-school games that people can play on the Nintendo Switch hardware with new multi-player functions for the whole family to enjoy. Parents also like toys that give their kids a creative, hands-on experience that also connects to the digital world. Nintendo’s new Nintendo Labo kits do exactly this. Kids can build physical life-size tools from sturdy cardboard, and then use them to make music, drive and race vehicles, and create life-size robotic arms and legs, pooling resources from the offline world and the video game world.
With Toy Fair New York here, it will be interesting to see whether these trends scale, and who the innovators will be as we march into 2019.