The Toy Fair in New York City has always a been a mecca for licensed goods. If you’re looking for a Star Wars spatula or Tardis mini-fridge you’ll find them at the Toy Fair before they hit Target or Amazon. Over the last decade or so the digital world has slowly crept into the aisles, whether in the form of Grumpy Cat plushies or, more recently, connected toys.
The toy scene has always been a fertile ground for start-ups, from makers to hobbyists to enthusiasts turned entrepreneurs. As the digital start-up culture evolved with maturing millennials a new breed of toys and toy makers began to emerge, bringing with them slicker design, more innovative technology and a more sophisticated interaction with digital. This year it felt as if the freshman of yesteryear had graduated. Some had joined established corporations, some were still out there making it on their own, but this year millennials finally instantiated themselves in the main aisles of the NYC Toy Fair 2016.
It was also the year that start-ups, connected toys and big brand licenses combined to form an extraordinary singularity in the form of Sphero’s BB8. The huge success of that toy added pressure to an already building supernova. Connected toys were everywhere.
To bring some sense to this exploding category, I thought I’d corral them into a few categories and choose an example to discuss the potential or concerns with the play experience.
This year CEO of Sphero, Paul Berberian, delivered the Keynote address at the Digital Kids Summit, a smaller more focused gathering held as part of the Toy Fair. He didn’t utter the phrase connected toy (or even the word toy) once and was careful to always speak of Sphero as a robot. This perhaps hints at where the company sees their product moving in the future. It would also address a key concern: engagement. Anyone who has played with a Sphero knows that the first burst of delight (which is intense) tapers quickly. What can I actually do with this thing? How can I broaden my experience? When these questions were put directly to him, Paul spoke about his personal memories of toys and rightly pointed out that the ones that had the biggest impact weren’t necessarily the ones he spent the most time with. It’s a fair point, but if Sphero and the connected robot category more generally is going to take off, it will need to address this issue urgently.
We’ve heard a lot about wearables recently, so it’s not surprising to see a lot of things emerging in the toy space. We got to listen to Sarah DeWitt (shout out to PBS peeps!) and the Moff band team discuss a recent collaborative project that got kids off the couch and active. When I first saw the Moff band I thought it might be a little limiting, but as soon as I heard the team discussing the PBS project I ordered one from Amazon. I’ve yet to try it out, but if it’s half as fun as it looked on stage my son and I will be smashing pinatas until the early hours. The great thing about wearables as opposed to the Kinect is that you can engage anywhere, not just in the living room, opening a world of possibilities. And with the Apple Watch the opportunity for co-play will be immense. Can’t wait to see what’s next.
3D printers: the only toy that makes toys. An iterative infinity of intellectual property infringement and regulatory stress. Here at Two Moos we have a long history with creating 3D printing products for kids. We co-founded with the brilliant Jenny Kortina a 3D-modelling app called Blokify, which was acquired by 3D Systems last year. It is, frankly, easily the best 3D printing solution for kids on the market, but we were intrigued by some new offerings at the NYC Toy Fair 2016. Notably, Mattel has come out with their own 3D printing product, the Thingmaker. The Thingmaker relies heavily on character templates to get kids started, but also allows for designing characters from scratch. It’s a fun looking device with software made the by the pros over at Autodesk. It’s certainly a great foray, but whether it finds traction remains to be seen.
Simple RF (“Radio Frequency”)
So this is the most challenging category, in the sense that it pretty much destroys the taxonomy, but I feel there should be room for the super simple, stripped down gadgets that just use RF (or Zigbee or Z-wave) to do something fun. This style of toy is the most prolific among start-ups, which is probably due to the plummeting price of the hardware required to power these devices. My feeling is that this category works best when it embraces its lo-fi nature and sets out to achieve one thing well. This was best exemplified by ROXs, an incredibly simple game that gets kids outdoors and exercising. The premise is simple: set up small ‘rox’ with colored lights attached to them in your garden, then run around tapping the lights in a defined sequence. Simple, fun and active.
Okay, so this is barely a connected toy, but by far my favorite product at this year’s Toy Fair was Zing’s Stikbot Studio. There are a handful of toys that are not directly connected to a device, but rely on them to guide or augment the experience. Stikbot is such a simple and beautiful example of how combining real world objects with digital devices can create an explosion of goodness. Take two stick figures with articulated limbs, add a green screen background, then film with some really clever software that allows the user to place the figures in keyframes and then creates tweens to animate the experience. Add in foley sounds, a music soundtrack and a whole lot of crowd-sourced creativity and you get the best user generated content experience around. Check out the results on youtube … and get lost for hours. I’d love to see the product get combined with AR and some licensed characters (come on Marvel!). This product alone made the NYC Toy Fair 2016 worthwhile.