Kids' Music Technology Dominates Toy Fair 2012

Trade show leans toward fads for little rockers

The Oregon Scientific Meep! tablet
Oregon Scientific Meep!
The Oregon Scientific Meep! tablet
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From sensor-equipped stuffed animals to action figures with companion apps and Barbie dolls boasting built-in digital cameras, Toy Fair 2012 continued to underscore technology's growing influence in kids' lives. The showcase wrapped today in New York, and progressive parents will be pleased to note that high-tech music gear for babies, toddlers and tweens were among the annual toy industry conference's most unique unveilings.

Read between all the LED-lit gizmos and talking plush dolls (among the over 100,000 new children's products which filled the city's Javits Convention Center to bursting) and it's clear: the future belongs to kids that rock. Case in point: Starting at an early age, companies like Lamaze will soon begin offering parents options to soothe screaming newborns using screens, play mats and infant accessories with connectable MP3 player options. Party-starting preschool fun may further extend into early childhood years with the August launch of Fisher-Price and Disney's Master Moves Mickey (M3) breakdancing plush, readymade for subway performances and priced at $69.99. Re-imagining the cartoon star as a robotic b-boy, the animated doll (which pops, locks and poses to eight built-in songs) even includes self-ironic overtones, spouting jokes when it inevitably stumbles as toddlers dance alongside.

Girls enamored with shimmying robots will also shortly be able to enjoy Fijit Friends Newbies and Yippits droids from Mattel, with lines being extended to include singing and sound-tracking pets that can croon together in harmony. Yippits units in particular will ship with multiple games and three songs pre-included, specifically designed to get sprouts up and shaking their moneymaker. Manufacturer Imperial Toy also plans to launch a full range of Kidz Bop-branded musical accessories by year-end, including keyboards, guitars and fashion tagalongs, which invite kids to play or sing along with sanitized covers of top hits. Arriving in time for fall, plastic instruments and music-inspired sunglasses hope to encourage rock star role-playing, so kids can live out fantasies of appearing on American Idol or The Voice.

Oregon Scientific also hopes to make music part and parcel with its new kid-friendly MEEP! tablet PC, meant for use by tech-savvy tots ages six and up. The company will look to optional microphone, keyboard and drum accessories – meant for use with supporting high-tech activities – to distance itself from competitors like LeapFrog's Explorer and VTech's InnoTab. Besieged by a range of app-enabled diversions and electronic accessories like the Apptivity line for iPad and Fruit Ninja plug-and-play plastic sword game system, Hasbro plans to give its toys a hard-rockin' high-tech upgrade as well. Beyond introducing the application-enhanced zAPPed board game series, which taps into iOS devices' computing power, it further intends to offer TWISTER Dance, a funky, futuristic spin on the traditional family night favorite. Angling to teach girls new dance moves, the game will include tunes by Willow Smith and Ke$ha, plus an exclusive remix of Britney Spears' "Till the World Ends" and original track "Caught Up in a Twister."

Tellingly, even gadget and consumer electronics companies felt compelled to weigh in at the event, traditionally oriented towards toy and board game manufacturers. See offerings such as the Vibe It Bullet portable speaker, which attaches to iPods and MP3 players or gaming systems like the PlayStation Vita to provide high-volume sound. ThinkGeek was also on-hand promoting its line of wearable musical t-shirts and bags, which let you play guitars or keyboards by strumming what appear to be innocent drawings.

Other major themes this year included glow-in-the-dark gizmos, educational toys for all ages and a retrenchment around high-priced, licensed outings with high wow factor meant to loosen parents' purse strings on sight. Accordingly, this year's advancements extend from innovative offerings like Crayola's Digital Light Designer (kids can use a stylus to sketch computerized designs on a glowing dome) to modern-day updates of even the lowest-tech toys such as PlayMobil sets featuring farms fueled by solar energy panels. But from Dr. Seuss'-branded iOS and Android board games to app-powered Lazer Tag Blasters and futuristic Nukotoys' trading cards, whose monsters and animals transfer to smartphone and tablet screens, make no mistake. The real story here isn't actual play options themselves: it's what these electronically-informed arrivals portend for today's family.

Technology isn't just preparing to invade the toy industry en masse this fall, and bring a growing tidal wave of new acoustically-inclined outings along with it. With even the littlest ones' potential play options now including faux plastic cell phones, portable media players and tablets, parents are clearly being forewarned. The high-tech field's inevitable impact on today's household is now a foregone conclusion, with big questions no longer surrounding if, but simply when, and to what profound degree, it will soon infiltrate modern household life.

[Full disclosure: the author has written The Modern Parent’s Guide series of high-tech parenting books and is the host of video series Family Tech: Technology for Parents and Kids.]

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