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Toy Fair goes high-tech

Interactive toys featuring computer technology are stealing the spotlight from traditional games and toys, as PC companies and toy manufacturers cross over into each other's domain.

    NEW YORK--This year, it's possible to confuse the American International Toy Fair with the Comdex computer show.

    The trade show, generally an opportunity for toymakers to show off the latest and greatest to retail store buyers and potential customers, has been taken over by the computer industry, it seems.

    At this year's show, interactive toys featuring computer technology are stealing the spotlight from traditional games and toys, with traditional PC companies like Intel breaking out their toy offerings, and traditional toy manufacturers like Hasbro and Mattel unveiling Internet-centric gadgets for kids.

    The evolution of the event reflects the growing influence of the Internet and technology among non-PC users, including children. As PC penetration rates stabilize at around 50 percent of the U.S. population, technology and Internet companies must appeal to those who have not yet been lured by the computer. At the same time, technology has become so prevalent among adults, it's no surprise children want to play with their own gadgets.

    However, with the introduction of child-size versions of Internet devices and technology come questions about how young children will be protected from dangerous content, or being bombarded by advertising, when surfing the Internet.

    For instance, Intel and Mattel today introduced what they call "PC-enhanced toys," developed jointly by the companies. Including the Intel Play Computer Sound Morpher, the Intel Play Digital Movie Creator and the Intel Play Me2Cam Virtual Game System, the new toys are based on the Intel Play brand launched by the companies last year.

    "Today's children are very technologically savvy and the computer plays a big part in their daily lives," Monique Sullivan, director of marketing for Intel Play at Mattel, said in a statement.

    Other big names at the show include Hasbro, whose Tiger Electronics division today introduced Lightning Mail, a messaging device about the size of a small cell phone which allows users to send and receive emails to other Lightning Mail users or other email addresses. With Internet service provided by NetZero, a free ISP, the new device is targeted at children and comes with the option to exclude onscreen advertising.

    "Tiger and NetZero have collaborated to deliver a product that's compact, intuitive, and, with no advertising on any of the message screens, extraordinarily child-appropriate," Roger Shiffman, president of Tiger, said in a statement today.

    Cybiko also unveiled a kid-friendly handheld device, featuring instant messaging, interactive gaming and wireless chatting with other Cybiko users. The device, which features an LCD display and 500KB of memory, will also synchronize with a desktop PC, much like a typical Palm device.

    The Cybiko will have an estimated retail price of $149 when it is released this spring.