Here Come "Smart Toys"

by Jacquie Kubin

Children need only but to look around to see the marvels of technology. From ATM machines to price scanners, youngsters are bombarded by this age of intelligent machines. As an obvious extension, toy makers are gearing up for this new age. A new trend, "the smart toy," can talk, respond, teach, interact and become part of a child's life.

"The way I understand the smart toy, it is a toy with its own intelligence, programmed with electronics that allow a child to respond, and that will let the child know if they have responded correctly or not," says Kathleen Alfano, Ph.D. toy development for Fisher-Price. "Today's technology has allowed for many more smart toys because the price of that technology has decreased while the amount of information that can be put on a small chip has increased."

Building Blocks To Learning
Building blocks were one of the first toys ever developed and LEGO, which means "play well" in the native tongue of Danish founder Ole Kirk Christensen, may be the first "smart toy." LEGO, which was first introduced in 1947, was created to empower a child's imagination, creativity and motor skill development within an unlimited play potential arena. They increase a child's understanding of spatial relationships while helping them to develop reasoning and analytical skills without a single blinking light.

The plastic building blocks have grown and changed over the years, and today LEGO is animated and responsive. For children twelve and older, LEGO has introduced a new building system that combines modern day technology with childhood play, Mindstorm's Robotic Invention System.

Mindstorm puts the power of robotics at the command of the child as they build and program intelligent inventions that move, act and think on their own. The system works with a LEGO microcomputer and traditional LEGO elements to create new ways for children to interact with present day technology. With the 700 piece system, children can create everything from a light-sensitive intruder alarm to a robotic rover that can follow a trail, move around obstacles and duck into dark corners.

At the core of the system is the RCS, an autonomous LEGO microcomputer that can be programmed using a PC. Inventors first build their robot and create a program for that invention using RXC code, a simple programming language, that is downloaded to the RCX via an infrared transmitter ($200). Joining in on the largest toy licensing event of the decade, LEGO Mindstorms will release the Droid Developer Kit for the 1999 holiday season. With Droid Developer, young Skywalkers can build their own droids that move, chirp and respond to their environment.

Droid Developers does not require that the inventor have a PC, though each kit comes with paper and CD-ROM instructions. Droids that can be built include the classic R2-D2 and the new battle droids introduced in this year's movie. Designed for builders ages nine and up, Droid Developers has three difficulty levels -- Apprentice, Jedi Knight and Jedi Master -- though most children will be able to complete their first working droid, the L-3GO, in less than one hour. Because of the modular building system, inventors will be able to mix and match sub-assemblies making it easy to create dozens of working droids.

The Droid Developer Kit is powered by the Micro-Scout, the smallest LEGO microcomputer with built in light sensor, motor and seven behaviors. The kit contains over 600 pieces ($99).

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