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TECHNOLOGY AND TOYS : New War Toys Stir Up Their Own Fight

February 10, 1987|TONY ROBINSON | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — It is every child's wildest dreams come true. At the same time the forces of good and evil do battle on TV, high-tech toys can continue the struggle right there on the living room floor at the child's feet.

Taking their cues from signals broadcast on television, some of the most exciting and most expensive toys of 1987 will use computer chips to direct the movement of toys at home, let kids score points for shooting enemy aircraft on a TV show and let dolls engage in near-realistic conversation.

These are just some of the many toys unveiled Monday at the opening day of the American International Toy Fair here. The toys mark the next step in so-called interactive toys, as well as the preoccupation of toy manufacturers with television and technology.

At the annual Toy Fair, an estimated 15,000 buyers from around the world will preview the toys, games, dolls and novelties of about 1,000 exhibitors.

Although toys tied to TV programs and toys that can talk with children are nothing new, the combination of the two is the most startling development to come out of the Toy Fair this year. But the use of technology to enhance already controversial battle games only renewed old controversies about war toys and television programs.

"There is . . . a direct correlation between the violence on TV and childrens' aggressive nature," said Stevanne Auerbach, child psychologist and author of a guidebook on toys.

Toy industry executives prefer to say that war toys teach eye-hand coordination and, like chess, strategy. Douglas Thomson, president of Toy Manufacturers of America, the sponsor of Toy Fair, disputed the notion that toys with guns foster violence. At a morning news conference, he said he felt no fear of violence in a room filled with reporters who had played with Dick Tracy cap pistols and Davy Crockett rifles as children.

There were also other complaints. In Washington, Action for Children's Television filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission on Monday, protesting that toys that interact with television go further than ever to blur the line distinguishing programming from advertising.

"The product has come to completely dominate the programming itself," the petition said.

Peggy Charren, president of the Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit group, also expressed concern that children who cannot afford the toys, which in the case of TechForce will cost at least $250 for the basic set, will not be able to fully enjoy the programs.

That the program could create a "second class of viewers, especially with children, is outrageous," Charren said in a telephone interview last week.

"That is absolutely not true," said Nolan Bushnell, president of Axlon, the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based manufacturer of TechForce, the most advanced of the interactive toys. Axlon and Mattel, which makes Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, maintain that the related TV programs scheduled to air in September will fully entertain viewers who don't have the toys.

Bushnell added that it would be "a travesty" to have the ability to create such toys but withhold it. "The power of the technology is something that people are going to have," he said.

The power of TechForce's technology allows a child's own battery-operated robots to move and fire on one another upon signals emitted from the television set during a new TV show called "TechForce and the Mo-to Monsters."

That capability comes at price that may make the toy no more than a dream for most children. The price tag for the basic set will be around $250, Axlon said, and that does not include the sound decoder that links TechForce's warriors and the inaudible commands broadcast with the program.

Without the decoder, though, kids will be able to put their Prog and Mo-to Monster robots through a dizzying array of movement and firing schemes from a small console that transmits commands by radio waves.

Captain Power, from Hawthorne-based Mattel, is not as technologically advanced, but comes at a lower price. Futuristic jets that use light beams to shoot evil forces on the television screen will be available in mid-summer for less than $35. The jets can also shoot one another or targets. Players suffer the indignity of having their pilots ejected from their cockpits when a battle is lost.

On television, each 30-minute "Captain Power" television program will combine live action with computer animation as in the movies "Tron" and "The Last Starfighter," and will include five minutes of battle footage.

Dolls Can Chat

In the toy nursery, Baby Talk--last year's hit doll from Galoob Toys--will also take one more interactive step forward. The San Francisco company will market a $50 device that will allow Baby Talk to chat not only with her owner but with a specially created video program.

And Fremont's Worlds of Wonder will offer a $100 doll named Julie, which uses a voice recognition chip that allows her to actually respond in kind to different phrases from her owner.

Manufacturers say they hope these new high-tech toys will perk up an otherwise flat industry. Sales rose less than 5% in 1986 from the 1985 figure of $12 billion, according to the Toy Manufacturers of America.

Being contemporary does not always mean being high-tech, though. Mergers and acquisitions will leave the trading floor for the kitchen table in games called Mega-Raider and Corporate Pursuit.

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