by Robin Raskin, founder, Living in Digital Times

Parents are becoming more wary about the addictive nature of digital screen time. That has forced the high-tech kids’ industry to rethink its strategy and move beyond apps and screen time toward toys that blend physical and manipulable objects with digital play. You could see the fruits of this labor throughout the show floor at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2020 — the world’s largest trade show for technology and innovation — in Las Vegas.

This year’s offerings feature augmented reality (AR) components, artificial intelligence-powered (AI) robots, toys-to-life games, and more. Read on for some highlights showcasing the most innovative new toys from the show.

Kids can practice science, analytical thinking, and problem-solving skills with Shifu Tacto. (Photo: Shifu Tacto)

TANGIBLE TECH

Shifu Tacto is a multiplayer, AR gamepad that cradles an iOs or Android tablet. The gamepad uses real figurines, which interact with the player’s tablet, that kids can use to create molecules, aim laser beams, or follow a quest. The latest in a series of AR game sets from Shifu, the Tacto’s multiplayer board uses the tablet to generate content. While they’re playing, kids are mastering concepts of chemistry and physics, as well as developing analytical thinking and problem-solving skills. There are add-on kits with other AR experiences for the board available for purchase as well.

Kids can create and craft their own digital games with Bandai Namco Entertainment’s Tori. (Photo: Robin Raskin)

Following a similar theme, Bandai Namco Entertainment’s tori uses what the company calls “mirror play technology” to combine magnetic sensors, a radio-frequency identification (RFID) powerbar, and a tori Board attachment to turn a tablet into a multidimensional experience. There is a lot packed into this game, including toys that kids can construct themselves and some high-tech play pieces, such as the tori Wand, tori Catapult, and tori Spacecraft. Kids can create and craft the game with their own physical creations. To enable a game, kids hover one of the play pieces over the special board. Their movements are mirrored on the screen, launching games and adventures. Bandai hopes to release add-on packs in the future.

Both of these new forms of toys-to-life games have much in common with Nintendo’s Labo, one of the first play kits to combine digital and physical play so seamlessly. With Labo, kids can build cardboard creations and then bring them to life using a Nintendo Switch console.

Nintendo’s Ring Fit Adventure (Photo: Nintendo)

Physical play also meets digital play with toys that encourage kids to get active. Nintendo did it again with Ring Fit Adventure, which won a Kids at Play Interactive (KAPi) Award for its combination of an exercise-ring-shaped controller and a leg band that accompany Nintendo Switch gameplay. The award’s judges said the incentives that the game levels provided really got kids to move around and exercise. The number of physical game patterns supported by the ring and leg controller combo includes skateboarding, squats, yoga, and karate-like chops.

Hasbro’s Star Wars Lightsaber Academy Interactive Battle Lightsaber was another CES Award winner. This $50 toy uses Bluetooth and an app to train kids using Jedi moves. Players can choose to learn from Star Wars characters Darth Vader, Kylo Ren, Yoda, Luke, or Rey. Once they master the moves, players head off to complete missions or battle other lightsaber-owning friends. The saber features an accelerometer, a gyroscope, and a barometer that tracks the speed and accuracy of kids’ moves and links to a record-keeping app. Replete with sound, lights, and phrases, it’s a realistic lightsaber fight for sure.

Kids can turn their doodles into playable video games with Doodlematic. (Photo: Robin Raskin)

An exciting breakout tech company called Doodlematic was one of the favorites at Last Gadget Standing, a CES event in which finalists compete live on stage to determine which product is the “most likely to succeed.” Doodlematic turns pen, crayon, or marker drawings into a video game right before your eyes. All kids need to do is create a doodle of the game world they want to create and take a photo of it. The Doodlematic app instantly transforms the drawing into a playable game. The colors kids use get attributed to game mechanic movements. For example, green is for go. It’s simple to master, but the game can get complex as kids refine their designs.

Kids can improve their language skills with Roybi. (Photo: Robin Raskin)

Robots on the Runway

Kids’ robots have long dominated the CES show floor, and this year proved no different. Roybi’s specialty is teaching kids to speak foreign languages and hone their own native language abilities. The robot is a simple, almost rabbit-shaped toy with AI-powered, STEM-based learning tools that can teach spelling and read stories to help kids learn second languages, according to the toy’s creators. Roybi is recommended for kids ages 3 and up, and parents can track their kids’ progress using their mobile phones.

Artie 3000, from Educational Insights, won points for helping kids learn how to code through drawing. Think of it as a robotic spirograph that can teach programming languages, including Blockly, Javascript, and Python.

The Sima Robot uses a mobile phone to power itself and transform into a multi-capable robot. Aimed at young learners, Sima can walk, dance, talk, and play games curated by the caregiver, who programs the robot’s speech. Connected to IBM’s Watson cloud, the robot uses Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, which may make it of limited use outside of your home. According to the manufacturers, parents can also use Sima to teach young kids empathy.

Beijing Keyi’s Clicbot is a whimsical entry into robot building. Kids can build a robot using smart modules, many of which feature cameras and motion sensors, that click together. ClicBot can respond to hand gestures and even learn to recognize familiar faces. It also plays catch and football, and does dance battles.

St. Noire is an Alexa-enabled, detective-fantasy board game. (Photo: Robin Raskin)

Using Your Voice

There are already thousands of kid-friendly games that use Amazon Alexa or Google Home Assistant — and many of them are using voice as a new art form. The winning game in the voice category went to St. Noire, an Alexa-enabled, detective-fantasy board game powered by voice. The game was created by Virsix Games, founded by Nolan Bushnell (the creator of Pong and Chuck E. Cheese) and entrepreneur-turned-game maker Zai Ortiz.

Wearables

It was a quiet year for kids’ wearables. The creators of Owlet, the leader in infant sleep data, are now teaming up with sleep experts to create Owlet Dream Lab, providing parents real-time sleep data through an infant’s wearable sock. For older kids, there’s Explora, a smartwatch built on a new platform on which kids are rewarded with digital perks as they complete physical activities offline. The watch’s built-in GPS tracks the missions.

Observations

It’s worth noting that the majority of toys for kids — especially educational toys for kids — at CES were not developed in the U.S.

Toys “R” Us also shared insight into the Tru Kids Brands and b8ta partnership that plans to bring experiential shopping to the kids’ toy industry. It was evident that the old way of selling toys to kids just isn’t working anymore.


This article originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of the Toy Book. Click here to read more!