New York The latest generation of high-tech toys has arrived.
A miniature Batmobile can rev its engine in sync with an animated version on TV, while a plush cat can sing along with a DVD or video.
Toy companies, hoping to compete with video and computer games, are marketing toys that interact with what children are watching on TV. But unlike some high-tech toys of the past that were too difficult to operate, manufacturers promise the latest versions are easy to use.
"Toy makers have been able to put more technology into the toy, and still enhance the play factor," said Tom Conley, president of the Toy Industry Assn., the industry trade association. He estimates that about 70 percent of the new toys introduced at the recent American International Toy Fair, the industry product expo, will have some sort of microchip.
The new toys include:
- Serafina, of Mattel Inc., a furry toy cat named for a character in "The Princess and the Pauper," that sings and wags its tail in response to what's happening on the DVD or video that stars Barbie. The toy will retail for $40.
- Hasbro's Wheel of Fortune, which allows consumers using a hand-held wireless device to actively compete with the contestants on the TV series in real time. If you beat the contestant, the TV sends a signal to download bonus games into your device. The product is priced at $29.99.
- Ohio Art's ETO, an electronic version of its Etch-a-Sketch, which retails for $34.99, and uses the TV as its sketching tool. The system comes with its own control device that's hooked up to the TV and allows children to create their own original artwork, sound effects and maze games.
- Mattel's InteracTV, which allows children to interact and learn with their favorite characters from popular shows like "Blues Clues" and "Dora the Explorer," using the TV and a DVD player. The $39.99 learning system from the company's Fisher-Price division comes with a wireless controller that uses sensors and touch-screen technology.
VEIL opens doors
One of the latest technologies in toys, licensed by Mattel and Hasbro, is called Video Encoded Invisible Light, or VEIL, created by Veil Interactive Technologies. VEIL is a special process that alters the light levels of an image on TV. Humans can't detect it, but a photosensor on the toy picks up the signal, which then prompts the toy to react in a certain way.
Scott Miller, vice president of business development at Veil, said many toy companies were interested in adopting the technology, but the company was careful to launch it with what it considered "the best properties."
Mattel is using the VEIL technology initially in three of its Batman toys, but chairman and CEO Robert Eckert expects the company to use it in other toys as well.
Some of the high-tech toys sold in recent years, such as robotic dogs and other animals, were too complex for children. Eckert said this generation of toys was easier to play with.
"You can take technology too far, and it actually turns kids off," he acknowledged.
The Batman toys can receive signals from a new animated series called "The Batman," which will air this fall on two cable channels, Kids' WB! and The Cartoon Network. For example, the Batman action figure will start speaking phrases at the exact moment the cartoon version does.
Hasbro's "Wheel of Fortune" also uses the VEIL technology. But Mattel's Serafina uses a less sophisticated technology that emits signals from the DVD or video to the toy cat through a a small wireless transmitter that sits next to the TV. The cat, which reacts in 80 different ways each time the child plays the film, should be no more than 15 feet from the TV, according to Julia Jensen, a Mattel spokeswoman.
Toys draw criticism
Some critics fear these toys may interfere with children's play, limit their creativity and get them hooked to TV for a longer period of time.
"Instead of watching the television, they are now watching the doll watch the TV. When these kids watch a show, they don't want to be disturbed," said Stephanie Oppenheim, co-editor of Oppenheim Toy Portfolio, an independent guide to toys and other media.
She added: I'll be very interested to see how these toys do."
Oppenheim also said children like to use their own imagination, even when watching TV, and she believes some of these new toys dictate "directed dramatic play."
Diedre Dennis Wachbrit, of Thousand Oaks, Calif., the mother of 4-year-old twins, said she doesn't know much about the toys, but, "it's important that my kids have balance and plenty of interaction with the natural world."
"If a toy helps facilitate that or teaches something like reading, then I like it. But if the toy distracts them from the real world, and fails to teach anything valuable, I'd say it's no better than TV, which isn't too good."