Think back to your childhood, and almost all of us wished we could talk to our favourite toy. Imagine them eagerly asking questions and learning our names, and in return answering our questions and sharing nice stories with us. That’s the promise of connected toys today.
Hello Barbie can listen to your child and respond intelligently; CognitToys offers an artificial intelligence dinosaur that learns with children, getting smarter as they do; and the Avakai is a wooden toy that communicates over the internet.
There's even the iPhone-connected rubber duck, Edwin, featuring a speaker, LEDs, an accelerometer, and sensors to detect taps.
Children’s toys have often relied on the player’s active imagination. Now, they are being cleverly programmed to entice, encourage, entertain and educate their owners. A new era of connected toys, both physical and virtual, like touchscreen cubes, rolling robots and other Internet-connected toys, engage kids and teach them about the world.
NPD Group, a marketing research firm, estimates a 7 percent sales growth across 11 major global markets over the coming months and years. Another study, by licensing industry publication License Global, predicts connected toys will be a significant trend in 2016.
What would have been impossible a few decades ago has become a reality, thanks to widespread access to powerful computing technology and the seemingly boundless force of Bluetooth.
Connected toys in action
Widespread Internet usage, along with the ever-growing influence of technology, opens doors that fundamentally change the nature of toy making.
Robo Mama’s Kitchen Set is a digital kitchen that allows your little ones to play around learning different recipes and cooking methods, without the fire hazards that come with it.
BB-8 is a nice-looking sphere, with the ability to store and play holographic messages. BB-8 offers a uniquely personal experience with its touch and feel that makes it the most desirable toy of its kind.
Sphero is another app-controlled sphere, which helps young users to learn engineering, basic maths, astronomy, social skills, programming and many other topics in a fun and interactive way.
The list is extensive with the Toy-to-Life category, with industry leaders like Disney, Nintendo and LEGO all entering the smart toys market space. With a variety of shapes, sizes and forms, connected toys invite kids to an exciting level of participation that was impossible just a few years ago.
While a kid of the ‘80s had to content him or herself with rolling their R2-D2 around by hand, that same child’s son or daughter now manipulates an iPhone, to send the BB-8 right across the room to deliver a personal message.
These Internet of Play-Things help children become familiar with technology and understand its influence on their futures. As more and more things connect to the Internet, controlled via devices along with software, these toys become the kids’ first touchpoint of a digital world.
Key trends in 2016
It’s already been predicted that the connected toy market will witness a healthy growth across the globe. Star Wars from Disney Consumer Products has given a boost to the toy industry, positioning itself as a trendsetter in 2016.
Activision has also adopted a dominant presence in the connected toy space, with its premium offer Skylanders. Other industry leaders to follow suit include LEGO, Interactive Entertainment, Warner Brothers, and TT Games, who are going to storm the toy market space with new crossover game, LEGO Dimensions. It merges the feature of physical LEGO brick building with interactive console gameplay, to bring this traditional pastime into the modern day.
Playmation is a joint venture between DCP, Interactive Media and Hasbro. It blends technology, storytelling and imagination in a unique way, without relying on internet connectivity, to offer collaborative play patterns and help children better engage with their families. For parents who are looking for a new way to play that's active, creative and technology-infused, Playmation is a definitive solution.
Toys with a high collectible component are going to be a major play trend in 2016 and beyond. As appealing as such interactive toys may sound to little ones, they raise questions about how engaging and educational these toys are compared to traditional alternatives. Are they secure or do they encourage children to disregard privacy? Are they a gimmick?
How parents feel about connected toys
In light of these questions, many parents have reservations about this new wave of play; many are yet to be convinced that connected toys are more engaging than traditional ones. Another area of worry for parents is the security of the identity and data of their kids, as they are connected to the internet as soon as they start playing.
Furthermore, there seems to be considerable scientific backing for the idea that smart toys aren’t beneficial to typically developing children. It’s been argued they are useful for children with autism, but the toys need a specific design in order to achieve this.
But we cannot jump to conclusions, as these toys can actually learn about the personality of the child more than has ever been achieved by even a sophisticated computer. As these toys are web-connected they could be updated in real time online, as new processes, games and techniques are created by developers.
Toys for the sake of play
As the debate continues, one thing must be remembered: toys are meant for play and fun. Whilst aiding to learn is a secondary and complementary objective, it should not distract from this basic functionality. Though the qualities of traditional toys should be adopted, the doors for innovation should be kept open to welcome new ideas and technologies.
The technological features that come with a toy empowers a child to decide to play with it. Understanding technology at such an early stage is rightly an achievement in itself.
Whether smart toys can ever be able to compete with more engaging tech gadgets, such as tablets and robots, is a billion dollar question. And of course, a talking Barbie can be potentially replaced by a robot. However, disturbing the ecosystem of play-things with serious tech gadgets may be the equivalent of taking childhood away from a child, so instead, the industry must reach a compromise.