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Latest 'Smart' Toys Leave Nothing to the Imagination

February 15, 2001|DAVID COLKER |

The toys your kids hound you for this Christmas may be smarter than you. But they may not make for smarter kids. Thanks to smaller, cheaper microprocessors, this year's hottest playthings are more lifelike and clever than ever.

Kids will see plenty of ads on Saturday morning television hyping babies that coo on cue, disembodied heads controlled over the Internet and automated marine life that swims peacefully in real aquariums.

Some of this stuff is really cool. Some of it's just creepy. But all of it is part of a transformation of the toy industry as manufacturers fill their baubles with more and more circuitry to hold the attention of tech-savvy tots.

Toys do more, from walking around on their own to crying when they don't get enough attention. Gone are the days when a box of wood blocks and a cloth doll did the trick. Kids these days don't have to pretend their plastic dinosaur is mauling Barbie. They can make the thunder lizard do it on its own.

Toys were once powered by imagination and dreams; the toys on display at the American International Toy Fair in New York this week depend more on batteries, remote controls and complex circuitry. Sure, this gadgetry has a high gee-whiz factor, but it forces kids to be passive entertainment consumers rather than masters of their imaginary universe.

Consider the Robo Baby from Tiger Electronics ($30). Forget the lovably silent doll that rounds out tea parties or serves as a pillow on long car trips. This toddler--which tests the adage that all babies are beautiful--crawls, laughs, cries, eats, sleeps, sings songs and advances in speech from cooing to phrases such as, "Mommy, hungry."

When Robo Baby cries, children have to figure out what's wrong: The doll could be tired, hungry or wet (no moisture is involved, just the sound of rushing water when the plastic diaper is removed). Unless it gets what it needs, the robot keeps crying as long as it's turned on or until someone puts it to bed by throwing a blanket atop it to cover its light sensors.

Mattel's Roarin' Snorin' Norbert ($40), a baby dragon from the Harry Potter books, is an undeniably cute plush toy. It awakes to a touch with lots of movement, twisting its head from side to side, flapping its wings and swinging its tail. Pet it and it will giggle, then laugh and eventually get so riled up that it sneezes, its mouth lighting up with pretend fire. But the toy puts kids in the position of reacting to Norbert's very specific set of abilities. Do what Norbert does or it won't do anything at all.

Toys have been playing music electronically for years, but Fisher Price's Compose 'N Play Orchestra ($25) exclusively features classical music. Aimed at toddlers, the toy has five animal characters that represent various instruments. For example, the bear is the violins and the hippo the horns in the opening bars of Handel's "Water Music," one of the featured selections. Add the instruments to the toy's music box one by one and they eventually add up to a full orchestra's sound.

Along the same lines, Fisher Price's Crawl 'N Cruise Playground ($40) gives electronic rewards to the baby who accomplishes physical feats. When baby crawls through the plastic gates of the semi-circular playground, the device plays music. Hitting each toy inside brings more sounds. Eventually, the structure can be expanded to give baby handholds to help in standing. Then baby gets to hit a ball, and there is more music. Whatever happened to plastic bowls and a wooden spoon?

If any robot can be calming, it's Tiger Electronics' Aquaroids ($35). These water creatures--a fish, turtle and jellyfish--are made to be put in a fresh-water aquarium or any other clear water tank. Operating off batteries in watertight compartments, the see-through creatures quietly use motors to gracefully move around the tank. A little wand helps them get out of tight spots if they swim into corners. Very neat, but don't goldfish do the same thing, cost a tenth as much and teach kids something about responsibility?

Mattel's Tony Hawk Skateboarder ($60) is as much an engineering as an electronic feat. This remote-controlled device, manipulated by a video game-like transmitter, mimics the weight-shifting balance a skateboarder must achieve to perform stunts. The toy even uses its arm to pick itself up after a spill.

And as if parents need another reason to be wary of tech-powered toys, think about the boast of Palco Marketing's Electro Dice ($5), which proclaims kids can "shoot craps in the dark." C'mon seven--Robo Baby needs a new pair of shoes.


Times staff writer David Colker covers personal technology.

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