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New Tech Toys Walk, Talk and Play Tunes this Xmas

September 7, 2005

NEW YORK — This holiday season, toys will be coming to life — well almost.

Toy companies are hoping that high-tech toys are going to be at the top of kids’ wish lists this holiday season, as a flurry of sophisticated playthings hit store shelves.

With toys and gadgets like an updated Furby, a plush Elmo that remembers a child’s name and habits, a robotic dog and a belching alien-like music maker, toymakers are working to win back tech-savvy kids who left the toy aisle in favor of video games, DVDs and electronic gadgets.

“Kids want to have the latest in technology, just like adults,” said Reyne Rice, toy trends specialist for the Toy Industry Association. “Kids have grown up with computers. They are not afraid of technology, they embrace it.”

Some of these cutting-edge items are highly interactive, others are kid-friendly versions of adult gadgets like MP3 digital music players, cell phones and video cameras, while some are built to enhance the tech toys kids already have.

Toymakers have been able to use increasingly cheap — and more sophisticated — technology to extend already popular brands or give life to flagging franchise.

“Kids are very comfortable with technology and these toys reflect that. When the microwave and car talk to you it’s perfectly reasonable that toys do,” said toy consultant Chris Byrne. “But it comes down to whether it’s fun. All the chips in the world won’t make a bad toy good.”

The $20 billion toy industry, which has been losing sales for the past few years, is scrambling to hold on to customers and attract new ones.

While some denounce the technology craze for stunting imaginative play, others point out that it’s a game of survival in an increasingly cutthroat toy industry which has seen the bankruptcy — and restructuring — of well-known toy retailing icons like FAO Schwarz and KB Toys, and the sale of Toys R Us to private equity and real estate investors.

High-tech toys debuting this holiday include:

* Top toymakers Hasbro Inc. (HAS.N: Quote, Profile, Research) and Mattel Inc. (MAT.N: Quote, Profile, Research) are going head to head on digital video cameras for kids, introducing the VCamNow and Vidster, respectively.

* Zizzle, a new company founded by former executives from Tiger Electronics — now owned by Hasbro — is launching Iz, a three-legged plastic creature that kids can use to create music, or use as an MP3 player speaker. Hasbro is rolling out iDog, which responds to music and can also be used as a speaker.

* Mattel unit Fisher-Price will feature an Elmo doll that can be programmed to know a child’s name, favorite food, even nap time. Hasbro is updating Furby with more lifelike features and emotions. Woweee Ltd. is unveiling Robo Pet, a remote-control robotic dog that does tricks and responds to its environment.

* LeapFrog Enterprises Inc. (LF.N: Quote, Profile, Research) will be offering Tic Talk, a working cell phone for kids that includes parental controls. Tek Nek Toys has CoolP3, a kid’s MP3 player with parental controls like password protection and volume adjustments.

Will the latest batch of tech toys answer kids’ — and toymakers’ holiday wishes?

“It’s definitely a way to reclaim some market share, but how do you get a kid to want it?” Byrne said. “Kids are more proficient with technology than Mom and Dad. The traditional barrier to what made something a toy has really dissolved … why shouldn’t they have the real thing?”




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