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Sap Children of Imagination, Rob Them of Play : Experts Give an 'F' to High-Tech Toys

November 22, 1987|PATRICIA McCORMACK | United Press International

Talkative playthings and toys switched on by television are fun for children of all ages.

But the trendy high-tech toys, some costing over $100, also are controversial, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, Yale University experts, educators and crusading Peggy Charren, president and a founder of Action for Children's Television, Cambridge, Mass.

The toys tend to sap the imagination of children and rob them of play that nurtures proper development, according to experts who nixed the so-called interactive toys.

Uncle Sam is in on the controversy.

The Federal Communications Commission, in fact, recently authorized hearings on many aspects of children's TV, including TV-toy interaction.

Interactive toys causing excitement in playland include:

- Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future (switched on by a special TV show, by video versions of the episodes, or by one another).

- Dolls and plush animals that talk, direct play, engage playmates in riddles and other games, sense light and dark, sing solo or duet, and chat with one another.

All this is due to innards packed with sensors, microchips, audio tapes, batteries and other high-tech goodies, much of it secret and patented.

Mattel Link to TV

Mattel's Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future are the first to make the toy-TV show hookup. The especially designed Captain Power show hit television in September.

Already, the three Captain Power toys--at about $30--that interact with the show are in "sold out" situations, according to a Mattel spokesman.

At certain times during the episodes, toys pick up a "power on" signal. Lights flash to the accompaniment of a chorus of electronic wah-wah-wahs.

Once energized the toy, a plane in one case, shoots at the enemy, a plane that keeps coming at the viewer as the show rolls on. The bad guy scores when the playmate on the other side of the TV screen misses the TV target.

All this is tracked by an electronic counter, making the play similar to a video game.

Another TV interactive toy line is in the wings. It is being designed to hook up electronically with the action in "Saber Rider and the Star Sheriffs," a show from World Events Productions of St. Louis. That hit TV in September, too.

Brian Lacey, vice president and general manager, said Saber Rider is in syndication in 70 markets in the United States. It has been sold to broadcasters in 40 countries. In addition to English, the audio is in Spanish, French, Italian, Chinese and Portuguese.

Due by Christmas, 1988

World Events brought Voltron, the No. 1 TV show for children in 1984 and 1985. Lacey expects the interactive toy prototypes to be ready in the spring of 1988. The "Saber Rider" toys should be around by the following Christmas.

"Ours is different from Captain Power," Lacey said.

"Mattel's signal in Captain Power is one you can see. The (light) signal is the back end of a rocket or the eye of a monster.

"With ours, a light invisible to the viewer will activate a device with a microchip. The device with the microchip will be able to read the signal and make the toy do something--say zap bad guys and keep score.

"We have to overlook the fact that what we have now is the first phase of interactive television. We can expect far more. We are moving into adult lines, games, education.

"I can see the day that a book is included and interacts with television. The educational value would be that the kids turn the pages as instructed and look for an A when they are told to 'look for A.' "

"Saber Rider and the Star Sheriffs" is a kind of Western fantasy, Lacey said.

'Programming Upsets Me'

"I think interactive TV is a great thing but the programming upsets me," said Dorothy Singer, co-director of the Yale University Family Television Project and a University of Bridgeport psychology professor.

Jerome Singer and also project co-director, is her husband and a professor of psychology at Yale in New Haven, Conn. Supported by foundation grants, the Singers have turned out landmark reports about television and children.

Topics have ranged from the effects of TV violence to the passivity TV induces in youngsters who sit and stare for hours on end like pint-sized couch potatoes.

Dorothy Singer doesn't think shooting at the TV screen, which is what happens in the Captain Power show, is an improvement.

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