Gadget or plaything? Let the kids decide

Toys are incorporating more advanced electronics than ever, often blurring the line between playthings and consumer electronics. Photos: Where toys meet tech

Etch A Sketch, a staple of toy chests for more than 45 years, has gotten an electronic makeover.

A new battery-powered Etch A Sketch will rely on digital electronics for a speedy interpretation of each knob twist. It is designed, its makers say, to transmit data along a wire plugged into a television set that will display every line and detail in real time, with accompanying sounds and optional color. It will cost $20, twice the price of the traditional Etch A Sketch.

"I think the kids are becoming more advanced in what they are able to do," said Martin Killgallon, director of marketing for the Ohio Art Company whose grandfather helped bring the original Etch A Sketch to America. "We need to respond to them with innovative products."

Killgallon's take on toys and technology is likely to be widely reflected during the four-day American International Toy Fair, which begins on Sunday in New York.

The annual fair, open only to those in the industry, offers early glimpses of toys scheduled for release next holiday season. Classic toys, like dolls and board games, will be on display. But toy industry analysts, and toymakers like Killgallon, have made note of a major shift to toys that not only incorporate more advanced electronics than before, but also blur the distinction between toys and electronic items typically marketed to older consumers.

David Riley of the The NPD Group, a market research firm based in New York, said the shift is part of an effort by the $20 billion toy industry to reclaim dollars lost in recent years to high-tech products designed mostly for adults yet increasingly coveted by children.

It is no longer surprising, he said, to see a child of grade school age carrying a $300 iPod, an expensive cellphone or a portable DVD player.

"Children at a much younger age are asking for things they shouldn't be asking for, products not designed for them," Riley said. "But they are very good at using them, and by God use them better than I can."


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It is a phenomenon often described by toymakers as age compression. Simply put, said Reyne Rice, the toy trend specialist for the Toy Industry Association, a trade group, "kids are just more sophisticated and have more sophisticated tastes."

To draw children back to toy aisles, where sales have been faltering for years, Fisher-Price, Wow Wee, Hasbro, Razor USA and other toymakers have responded with more high-tech toys that parents can afford.

For example, Tek Nek Toys is releasing a $30 MP3 player called the CoolP3 for 4- to 8-year-old kids. It comes with candy-colored stereo headphones and software for making playlists and downloading up to an hour of music from the Internet or CDs. Unlike digital music players for teenagers and adults, the CoolP3 will include a parental volume control, its makers promise.

Also scheduled for release in the fall is the Blueberry Databank Organizer Phone, from Sakar International, for children not quite ready for a BlackBerry; a handheld electronic gaming system for toddlers; a battery-powered scooter that can travel at 15 mph; and a pen-based talking computer that can help young people compose music or translate foreign languages.

Consider the I-Dog Interactive Music Companion by Hasbro. At first glance, the palm-size puppy with luminous white contours and shiny metal trim looks like a gene splice of Apple's iPod and Sony's Aibo robot dog. What it does is listen to and respond to music, either from

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