Toy Designers Use Technology In New Ways as Sector Matures 
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 Toy Designers Use Technology In New Ways as Sector Matures

December 17, 2001
Boom Town
Toy Designers Use Technology In New Ways as Sector Matures

Silicon Valley is a place that makes many gadgets that seem a lot like toys.
These days, it's also making many toys that seem a lot like gadgets -- maybe
too much.

It's a good bet that this holiday season, even more so than in the past,
you're going to reach for toys and games that whir, purr, click and
download, rather than those old standbys that are more silent on the

But how to make these offerings as popular as the hits that have captivated
children for decades remains a challenge for techies and toy manufacturers.

In the midst of the dot-com boom, the big idea was to marry interactive toys
with the Web and personal computers to create supertoys that seemingly had
more intelligence than the children playing them.

Many, mostly the online games, were popular. But many more were spectacular
failures. Remember Microsoft's Talking Barney? These kinds of experiences
have resulted in a new focus that many believe will spur a period of real
innovation in toys.

At least, that is the hope of some toy inventors, like Bay Area designer Dan
Klitsner, founder of Klitsner Industrial Design, whose KID Interactive
division handles toys.

Much in the same way that other techies are thinking of using interactive
technologies more as a complement to businesses and consumers than as the be
all and end all, Mr. Klitsner is increasingly eager to create toys that live
both in the physical and virtual worlds.

"Like in the dot-com boom, it has also been a learning curve for toy makers
who use tech to think a lot more about the point of it all," he says.

What toys are you buying the kids in your life this season and do you think

debate Friday at

Of late, he has been particularly enamored of wireless technologies, because
he thinks it takes toys -- often used on the move -- and applies technology
that will help people interact better with them. The possibilities are
endless, including games played between cellphones, electronic light
impulses that re-create a game of catch, and toys that constantly receive
new information and instructions to keep users entertained.

And if true home networking ever becomes ubiquitous, toys will eventually be
enlivened the way techies dream all sorts of other devices will, he says,
adding that it's "a long, long time in coming, I am sad to say."

Mr. Klitsner's office is strewn with wires and memory boards and all kinds
of tech-looking doodads in various states of creation. On his desk is an orb
with an electronic maze inside. Nearby, a strange-looking object with all
sorts of buttons and a twisting piece of plastic attached turns out to be a
prototype of an interactive air guitar that takes a player's movements and
creates electronic riffs linked to music. In a box about to be shipped out
is a companion device to this year's potential hot trend -- home karaoke --
that digitally turns a person's voice into a musical instrument.

Mr. Klitsner has been trying to make technology into something fun since his
childhood in the Bay area. He went to art school in Southern California and
later did some stints at design firms, ending up in a job at a company that
tried to create a successful line of home robots. It was then he decided to
focus on toy design.

"In a lot of ways, the cultures of games and tech were similar since both
were trying to create innovation and come up with the next big thing," says
Mr. Klitsner, a tall, thin man who looks a bit like an overgrown boy. "And
toys and games by their very nature are interactive right from the start."

Like many toy designers, he started off making the nontech products, such as
a plastic stacking game and a toy called "Go! Go! Worms" that uses a
clay-making device and wheels to create a racing toy for kids.

But in the mid-1990s, he was pulled toward the possibilities of adding
electronics. Several moderately successful efforts followed, such as an
interactive dance device called "Groove Connection" that created moves for
users as they pass it back and forth, a gizmo that used sound technology to
allow kids to create their own instrument depending on how they configured
pieces, and electronic versions of already popular games like Uno.

One of the more successful ones he created and licensed for development to
toy manufacturers put a "key-top" on a computer keyboard that allowed kids
to use an instructive CD. A workbench key-top, for example, lets a child
saw, nail or drill, causing keys to be pushed and a virtual structure to be
built on screen.

But it was not until 1995, working with technology he created for a failed
hammer-shaped remote control for kids, that Mr. Klitsner hit gold. "Bop It"
used basic sound and word-processing technology to make a device that sucks
users into its game by asking them to pull, twist and push various parts in
a sequence.

After selling the idea to Hasbro, which developed it further and marketed
it, the toy and its many iterations have sold 10 million units.

His inspiration for Bop It came, says Mr. Klitsner, after seeing too many
tech-aided toys and games focus too much on mindless button-pushing and not
enough on self-expression. "I thought the key was to be clever about tech,
but not necessarily smart," he says. "A lot of what was being created with
the advent of advanced technology was done because people could do it and
not because it enhanced anything."

The failure of these electronically enhanced toys spurred a wholesale
rethinking of the tech-enabled toys, Mr. Klitsner says. "I think one thing
we all realized is that downloading sound files into a thing is just not
that fun," he says. "Kids are not enamored over the long term by something
that blinks and talks if they cannot build a real relationship and have an

He hopes both inventors and toy designers will keep in mind this notion and
not obsess on any new technology. After all, he notes, "a simple game of
cards is still the most interactive game there is and it's still great."

Copyright ? 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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Sat, 05 Jun 2004 12:40:16 GMT  
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