The Future of Play: The Best of The American International Toy Fair
posted ago by Carli
The American International Toy Fair took over the Javits Convention Center earlier this week with over 100,000 new toys and 31,000 visitors. As a community of inventors, it’s crucial that we keep up with this dynamic product category, so we sent over a team to hunt for the most innovative trends that are shaping the future of toy design. Here’s a glimpse at what made us wish someone would invent a time machine, so we can go back to being kids:
We saw a variety of robots, but it seems the novelty of prefabricated machines has worn off, and now users want to make and customize their own. One of our favorites was Romo, by Romotive. Romo has a mobile base that gives consumers the opportunity to transform their smartphone into a robot with super abilities, like telepresence, autonomous navigation, and machine vision. It can travel up to 3ft per second, tilts up to 45 degrees backward with just the flick of a finger, and can be controlled remotely from anywhere in the world, all while charging your phone at the same time! What’s really interesting is that Romo is a robot that you can train: the more you play with him the more he learns. Users can also download new behaviors and personalities from the Apple App Store for endless hours of modding and experimenting. Once you place your phone in the Robo base, it automatically comes to life with facial expressions and quirky little movements that you control via your iPad. It’s also extremely easy to create your own apps for Romo and to share with the Romotive community via the Romotive SDK. The modding community growing around Romo makes it more than a toy—it’s a collaborative learning platform that is constantly evolving.
The trend of collaborative communities growing around toys was a common thread among many of the stand-out products at the toy fair. It seems that kids and adults alike are looking to invent collaboratively with their peers. They no longer want their toy to be just an end-product; they want it to be a launch pad for their own creations. littleBits is another new toy concept on the market that is centered around a community of makers experimenting and learning together. littleBits is an opensource library of electronic modules that snap together with tiny magnets for prototyping, learning, and fun. Each littleBit is a tiny circuit-board with specific functions (light, sound, sensors, buttons, thresholds, pulse, motors, etc) engineered to snap together with magnets. No soldering, wiring, or programming required. littleBits are like LEGOs™ in that you connect the pieces to build larger complex structures, but they add a new layer of functionality. Once the modules are in place you can build an outer frame for the electronics to give it more of a fun personality, such as a cat with eyes that light up when you press its tongue, or a back scratcher that vibrates when you grip it. To help foster collaboration and experimentation users can upload projects they’ve completed with littleBits to the littleBits website. Similar to Instructables, the submissions feature simple step-by-step instructions for others to recreate or build off of. If you browse through the projects page you’ll find that their community has found a way to make just about anything with litteBits, from a bubble maker to a blender. Building a rich community around a product in this fashion not only keeps users engaged and challenged but it starts a movement that everyone wants to be a part of. littleBits make electronics, an often intimidating field of study, accessible. There are so many similarities between littleBits and Quirky that it’s no surprise that we fell in love with them.
Play has always been the foundation of learning, and products like littleBits and Romo are helping to keep the two conjoined. Codee is another toy we saw at the fair that is strengthening this link. Codee was developed by students at MIT who realized that DNA patterns could be translated into a toy. Codee links come in packs with a formula for assembling. Each link is labeled with a letter on the sides and a numberic sign (<, >, +, -) on the inside. For each step in the formula, there is a number, sign, and letter (for instance 1 > F). You can follow the simple formula to assemble the figure the set is designed for, or you can freestyle it to create your own and then share the code with others, so they can recreate it. You can even swap codes on the Codee website with the rest of the community. Like Romo and littleBits, Codee is building a community of tinkerers and making an abstract concept — in this case DNA code — more accessible.
This rise in the level of interaction and complex problem solving that children are taking on with their toys says a lot about today’s toy users. Roles are shifting and children don’t want to just be a user: they want to be inventors and to shape the toys they interact with. To meet this demand we need to create products that empower children to build what they imagine. We spotted the perfect example of this type of ambition in William Georges, the ten-year-old inventor of Pezo Pals. When he was just six years old, Georges made his first prototype by simpley placing his mom’s MP3 player into the back of his teddy bear. Now four years later, the Pezo Pal is a real teddy bear ready for purchase that houses an MP3 player for recording custom messages or embedding your favorite song in your plush pal.
Steve Castellotti and his team at Puzzlebox have taken interactive toys to a much deeper level than we’ve seen before. Like into the depths of your mind power deep! They developed Orbit, a brain-controlled copter that anyone can operate with an EEG headset. Wearing the headset allows the device to monitor your mind’s attentiveness and meditation levels, which are displayed on an app via your phone or tablet. You can use the app to adjust the threshold for these two types of brainwaves depending on what is easier for you, or what you want to work on improving. The more you concentrate on something (anything from visions of the ocean, to a favorite song) the higher the copter goes. When you relax your mind it comes back down. Besides being an incredibly entertaining toy to play with, Orbit has a rich potential for learning and brain development at all stages of life. Orbit provides a physical representation of concentration and meditation, which traditionally have been very difficult for the average person to measure. Conceivably, after much practice with Orbit one could work to achieve a zen state, where their attentiveness and meditation levels become synchronized at a very high level. We tested it out and while on first attempt such a level of mastery seemed impossible, we bet if we could get our hands on some at QHQ, after a few months we could all be working in a total zen state with Orbits hovering over our heads.
The people we met and the products we saw at the toy fair this year proved that it’s an incredible time to be a toy inventor — consumers are hungry for more and want to be active participants in something bigger and more meaningful than simple fun and games. It’s time to jump on this wave and reinvent what it means to play. Who’s with us?