Toy Fair 2011: Where Technology is Largely Lacking

I attended Toy Fair 2011 once again (with my friend and one of the smartest people I know, Larry Smith) which filled New York’s Javits Convention Center last week and it was a journey through quieter times.  I was shocked how little cutting-edge technology there was nor tie-ins with mobile devices, cloud services, virtual goods and other ways to extend the reach and impact of traditional “toys.”

I suppose I should have realized things were going to be a little different when I went to pick up my press/analyst badge (for which I had received email confirmation).  “No, you don’t qualify,” I was told on-site.  Instead, they gave me the badge for financial analysts.  I tried to explain the difference between the two but was met with blank, uncaring stares.  I was told, however, that my badge would get me pretty much everywhere the press badge did except the press room (and I didn’t really want to spend time there anyhow).  In retrospect, it was a great advantage.  At times the show floor was pretty barren so if I had a press badge or, even worse, a buyer badge, I’m sure I would have been besieged by booth personnel wanting to tell me about their wares.  But with the red badge I was wearing, no one particularly wanted to talk to me.  (At least I assume it was the red badge.)

Having immersed myself for the last five years in social, mobile and cloud technologies, I was shocked how little of this there was on the show floor.  There were lots and lots of toy blocks, lots and LOTS of stuffed animals (referred to in the trade as “plushes”) but not so many microchips or web connections.  I’ve become accustomed at tech trade shows to 90% of the booths having iPads for demonstration purposes; here, it was more like 4% (no exaggeration).  It was so low-tech, there were some booths who had old traditional CRTs and not flat-screen TVs.  I think the industry is missing HUGE revenue and engagement potential by not only not having toys that contain intelligence but also by not linking them to web sites that add functionality, engagement and further revenue opportunities.

In its story about the show, Time Magazine pulled together an article on the 100 all-”Time” greatest toys.  It’s amazing how consistent themes remain over, um, time.  Clearly this is an industry that doesn’t like change.  Even more, look at what Time picked as the top 10 tech toys they found at the show.  They included:

  • Monopoly Live.  I would characterize this as how not to add technology to a classic.  Gratuitous technology aimed at “appealing to interrupt-driven kids” does not an improvement make.  This approach should die a quick death.
  • Angry Birds.  Yes, if you haven’t had enough of it on your iPad, you can now play the board game.  The video game industry understands the concept of “brand extension.”  Not so the “traditional” manufacturers.
  • A “kid-tough” camera.  With full-featured adult cameras going for under $100, I’m not sure there’s much of a market here.  In fact, I’ll bet most five-year olds can better handle the new generation of touch-screen, feature-rich cameras than can most adults.  Maybe they should repackage these as cameras for seniors.

Three things did catch my attention.

  • The richness of really good scientific experiment kits is wonderful.  As a kid growing up, I was pretty much contained to a microscope and slides.  Kids today have an amazing array of real science kits focused on timely issues like potable water, renewable energy and the like.
  • I don’t remember exactly where in Disney World I saw this for the first time but they have this set-up where you wave your arms and motion-detecting devices sense your movement and turn it into music, varying the pitch and speed with how you wave your arms.  This has now made itself into home-sized and -priced technology.  And at the very low end, you can build your own musical device by just painting a piano.
  • You’re probably already seen ads for the Parrot AR Drone, a flying device that uses the iPad or iPhone to control it.  It makes for great demo though it strikes me as one of those toys where after 10 minutes of using it, you’d get bored.  The gimmick may be better than the reality.  More broadly, though, you’d think the toy manufacturers more broadly would understand the appeal of (a) the iPhone and (b) a device containing accelerometers.  If it’s useful in a phone, surely they can think of ways it would be interesting in a toy.  And price is probably not an issue here.  The componentry is cheap enough.

All in all, Toy Fair was a wonderful retro journey for me but caused me to reflect on how much of mainstream industry still hasn’t understood the power of technology, now available at incredibly low price points.  “Gamification” is a growing trend in technology (“funware,” as my friend Alan Berkson calls it).  Technology is embracing games.  If games/toys don’t embrace technology, there stands to be another industry where the technologists take over and the traditional players get shunted aside.  To their credit, the largest players in the toy industry (e.g., Mattel) seem to be the most advanced with technology.  That’s perhaps not as I’d expect it.  The disruptors should be driving the trend.  Maybe it’s because of the tech savvy required, or the capital investments.  For whatever reason, though, this is a space likely to see a lot of change in the next few years.  Here come the technologists.

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