High-tech toys target tykes

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Walking, talking cyberpets, voice-activated robots, cell phone-size electronic diaries and computer-based video cameras are just a few of the techno-toys marketers will serve up this week at the American International Toy Fair in New York.

Worlds away from decidedly un-techy classics such as Lincoln Logs, these cutting-edge gadgets represent kids' increasing exposure to technology, parents' interest in toys promoting imagination and engagement and, of course, the Internet.

"The toy industry is moving much closer to the consumer electronics industry," said Chris Byrne, editor of toy-industry newsletter Toy Report, noting that marketers also are targeting a younger audience with their high-tech wares.

MR. SQUAWKY TALKY

VTech marks its entry into electronic toys for pre-schoolers with Mr. Squawky Talky, a cell-phone-toting plush electronic bird that talks to kids wielding their own portable phones via infrared technology. Beyond plush pets, VTech markets its first electronic organizer for kids, Phusion. Notably, it includes a built-in digital camera to download images to a PC.

VTech will use more guerrilla marketing this year, and will directly target tweens (8-to-12-year-olds) in publications such as Teen People and favorite TV shows. VTech's new licensing agreement with the Discovery Channel is expected to help the company establish a relationship with tweens.

Babies and toddlers aren't left behind in marketers' techno plays.

"The most surprising new category to reflect the influence of technology is in the infant and pre-school segment, where sales increased by 7.1%," said Peter Eio, chairman of the Toy Manufacturers of America, in a speech last week.

In addition to a new line of baby electronics, VTech's Grip 'n Go TV Driver teaches tots logical thinking, colors and sequences, and can be plugged into the TV or used as a stand-alone toy.

The entry of new tech-infused toys marketed to ever-younger kids is welcomed by some marketers. "What's happened in the toy business is age compression," explained Emil Heidkamp, VTech's president.

"WE'RE TALKING TODDLERS"

Mr. Byrne agrees marketers must think of innovative ways to reach an even younger audience. "We're talking about toddlers who have a share of mind now," he said.

And marketers are vying for those young minds. Mattel's Fisher-Price brand bows IntelliTable, an activity table incorporating Microsoft's Smart Technology.

"The key as we see it is to bring things to life in a fun way, using both high technology and low technology," said Fisher-Price President Neil Friedman. "We are putting more emphasis on high tech, but we don't want to do high tech just for the sake of high tech."

Marketing powerhouses Intel Corp. and Mattel have teamed once again after last season's successfully co-developed QX3 toy microscope. This time, on the $99 Intel Play Me2Cam computer video camera and Fun Fair CD-ROM, launching at retail in April. The camera plugs into a PC and takes kids' pictures, placing their images within five animated worlds to create a virtual fantasy-land; kids' body movements control all the action. Me2Cam, will receive TV ad support via Mattel's in-house agency in October; the budget wasn't disclosed.

FURBY FINDS A FRIEND

High-tech pet-pals are hot. Tiger Electronics' smash-hit Furby gains an animated, interactive friend in Shelby, who responds to his environment via built-in sensors. Beyond that, Shelby has an 80-word vocabulary, interacts with Furby and various relations, and offers built-in games.

Tiger's Poo-Chi, an animated, palm puppy, sings, dances and plays games. Poo-Chi also incorporates bio-rhythmic technology to generate emotional responses as kids play with him.

"It's a dog-eat-dog toy show," jokes Toy Book Publisher Jim Silver, noting that at least six robotic puppies will be revealed this week. Competition to get on retailers' shelves will be tough, agrees Toy Report's Mr. Byrne. "Retailers aren't going to stock a whole shelf of robotic dogs," he said. "It's like an Oscar contention. The challenge is to find one that breaks through."

Adding to this gaggle of interactive must-haves, Tiger bows Interactive Yoda for "Star Wars" devotees. The sensor-based Yoda talks to kids and teaches them how to be a Jedi master.

Toymakers have made another bet that kids want a chance to be grown-up and get e-mail. Tiger's hand-held Lightning Mail ($59.99) lets kids send and receive e-mail via radio frequency technology. The mail program is free from NetZero. Tiger's cell phone-size M'e-mail allows girls to exchange secret messages and incorporates horoscope, to-do, calculator and other functions. Tiger will license a line of products under the Yahoo! brand, including a Webcam that snaps and sends pictures via the Internet.

POWER RANGERS

Bandai America and Saban Consumer Products licensed interactive technology from Microsoft Corp. for use in Power Rangers figures. The Fox TV "Power Rangers: Lightspeed Rescue" series premieres this month as do the figures in stores. Specially encoded episodes of the series will send signals to the figures' base stand so that dialogue and sound-effects can be replayed. J. Walter Thompson USA, New York, handles.

Lego's Mybot brand-motion-sensing Duplo blocks for pre-schoolers-allows kids to build robots and program them. Even Lego's new line of soccer toys for the 4-to-9-year-old segment is tech-infused. Lego recently inked a deal with Major League Soccer and will launch an interactive soccer game in June with promotion via the Lego Truck Tour. The tour will roll into MLS cities with player appearances and retail tie-ins; TV spots break in September via Lowe Lintas & Partners Worldwide, New York.

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