19 July 2006

Business Week special report on tech toys

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Working for Clams in Whyville
In a world where kids are spending a significant portion of their lives online, Whyville has pioneered mixing entertainment and education. The virtual world, founded in 1999 by CalTech biology professor James Bower, uses a wide variety of games to teach kids how to manage their money, hone their math and science skills, and even learn how to eat better. It’s a kid’s version of the popular Second Life cyberworld. A growing group of sponsors, including the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Getty, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and Toyota, have created areas within the world where kids can play games to learn about ions or the undersea world, and even customize and arrange financing for a new Toyota Scion. This combination of fun and learning is exerting an undeniable appeal: Over the past year, the service has grown 41% and now has 1.7 million members.

Tech Toys for Today’s Kids
Today toy companies face fierce competition for kids’ attention, not just from traditional industry players, but from video game, consumer electronics, and computer companies. Forget about Santa’s elves banging out wooden soldiers at the North Pole. These days toymakers have to act more like Apple’s Steve Jobs—constantly reinventing their products in sleek labS in Silicon Valley.

Re-inventing HotWheels
After a six-year interlude at toymakers Jakks Pacific and then Best Pals, designer Gary Swisher returned to Mattel in 2005 as vice-president of wheels design. There he oversees the HotWheels, Matchbox, and Tyco lines—the top three in the vehicles category. But a lot has changed since Swisher’s G-Force days. For one thing, today’s kids have grown up with technology. As Swisher says, “it’s just a given for them.” The toy industry has responded by giving classic brands a high-tech twist and introducing all new products that blur the line between toy and tech gadget. Recently, Swisher spoke with BusinessWeek.com’s Jessie Scanlon about the challenge of stewarding an old-school brand like HotWheels in our tech-driven age, the emerging technologies that will affect the toy industry, and Mattel’s Web strategy.

The Tussle Over High-Tech Toys (slideshow)
For a glimpse of [the high tech toys[ you’ll see on toy retail shelves well in advance of the crucial year-end shopping season.

Toys for Tot Testers
At Fisher-Price Play Lab, in the heart of the company’s headquarters, on the outskirts of Buffalo, N.Y., local children get first crack at the toys Fisher-Price will eventually sell throughout the world. And while it may be fun and games for the kids, the testing that goes on here plays a serious, critical role in the development of the products that helped Fisher-Price, acquired by Mattel in 1993, rake in $2.02 billion in sales last year.

More Than Child’s Play
Go behind the scenes at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, where students design the physical and interactive aspects of toys.

Super Design Powers, Activate!
A childhood dream of becoming a superhero fuels the [Mattel sponsored] development at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program of an interactive toy that encourages girls’ imaginations.

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