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Technology infiltrates toyland

The good, the bad and the ugly in technology toys straight from the annual American International Toy Fair. Photos: Toys and more toys

Toys sure aren't what they used to be.

As an entire generation of today's kids grows up playing with their parents' cell phones and iPods, it shouldn't be shocking that .

At the American International Toy Fair in New York City this week, the toy industry showcased their newest items for the toy buying season. Not surprisingly, many of those toys were loaded with technology. Some were fantastic, while others seemed like they'd just suck the creativity out of kids.

Let us begin with the coolest of the kid's tech toys.

My favorite toy that will be coming out this year is Fisher-Price's Kid-Tough Digital Camera.

Toy Fair toys

For the past two Christmas seasons, I've actually been on the hunt for this exact toy. When my nephew was 5 years old, I let him play with my digital camera at Thanksgiving. He loved being able to take pictures of the family (and the Batman blow-up doll we bought him at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade). He was absolutely fascinated by the pictures he had just taken as they appeared on the little LCD screen.

Because he wasn't "wasting" my precious film, I let him fill up the 256K memory card. And even though I ended up with about 75 pictures of Batman in various poses, I'm proud to declare that the kid has talent. Many of the pictures he took were better than my own.

When I looked for a kid-appropriate camera to buy him for Christmas that year, there wasn't anything available. A lot of companies make digital cameras for kids, but most don't have LCD screens. Where's the fun in that?

The Kid-Tough Digital Camera from Fisher-Price is the first digital camera that is rugged and easy enough for even preschoolers to use. With rubber grips on the sides, the camera looks like one of the old Viewmaster Viewers I had as a kid. It includes a 1.3-inch backlit color LCD preview screen. It will be available this summer and costs about $70.

Another very cool toy from Fisher-Price is the Digital Song and Story Player. This MP3 player comes with a handful of preloaded songs and stories. With a little help from mom and dad, kids can plug the player into a computer with a USB cable and load music and stories onto the player, just like they would with an iPod.

Fisher-Price has also designed an iTunes-like Web site where parents (or kids, if they can get their little hands on a credit card) can buy toddler-appropriate songs and stories. Headphones are limited to a certain decibel-level to protect tiny eardrums. The player will be available in stores this summer for $70.

I also gave Lego high marks for its newly updated Mindstorm build-it-yourself robotics kit. The "brain" of the new robot is the NXT brick, which runs a 32-bit microprocessor that can be programmed from a PC or a Mac and loaded onto the robot via a USB cable or Bluetooth wireless connection. The previous version of the product only had an 8-bit "brain."

The 571-piece kit comes with four sensors, two of which are Lego's new Ultrasonic Sensors, which become the eyes of the robot, measuring distance and movements, as well as detecting objects. New Sound Sensors are the ears of the robot, allowing creations to react to sound commands and audio patterns, and also recognize tones. The new kit costs about $250 and is designed for children age 10 or older.

Not everything showcased at Toy Fair was even really a toy, but that didn't make it any less cool for me.

Lego wasn't the only company touting robots. Hitec Robotics of Poway, Calif., showed its Robonova-1 humanoid biped robot for the first time in the United States. The company said the robot is a big hit in Japan, where enthusiasts build robots and enter them in competitions to battle one another. Slightly more sophisticated than the Lego Mindstorm robot, the Robonova-1 kit comes with a 128-bit processor. The price tag is also more sophisticated: about $1,000 a pop.

Not everything showcased at Toy Fair was even really a toy, but that didn't make it any less cool for me. Boston-based start-up Mimoco displayed its fun and quirky Mimobots--designer USB flash-drives ranging in capacity from 256MB ($60) to 2GB ($185)--that are decorated to look like characters from designer toy makers. The first two series, known as Cosmos and goSeries, feature nine characters designed by artist Yahid "Serial Killer" Rodriguez. A new artist series was launched at Toy Fair featuring characters from contemporary artists like Tado and Shawnimal Smith, a Chicago-based designer who hand-makes over 400 plush characters. As a special bonus, the drives are preloaded with animation from the artist whose character is depicted on the flash drive.

"Our customers are all designers and artists," said Kristin Weckworth, owner of the Magic Pony, a boutique selling creative products in Toronto. "They're always using flash drives, and they love the idea of storing their stuff on these really cool little characters. The Mimobots sold really well during the holiday season. We're definitely looking for more."

While I love technology as much as the next person, I was disappointed to see how some manufacturers loaded toys with so much technology it's likely to zap the creativity out of kids. Whatever happened to pretending a lunch box was a TV? Or making the sound of the fire engine yourself instead of just pushing a button to have it make the sound for you?

Take Mattel's Pixel Chix. Kids don't even have to make real-life friends anymore or play with real dolls. This game--which isn't much of a game--costs about $30 and features a virtual girlfriend who can be directed to eat, sleep and "hang out" at the touch of a button. If she is ignored, she packs her bags and leaves the screen. This year Mattel has added a new house and car for the Pixel Chix to drive around.

And then there's Mattel's Let's Dance Barbie, a robotic ballerina, priced at $54.99, that follows a child's dance move. Hasbro also introduced a 40-inch tall robotic pony, called Butterscotch, that reacts to the touch of a kid's hand.

It seems like toys have gotten so sophisticated, kids simply push buttons or wave their arms around a bit, then watch their toys do the playing for them.