Toyland and cyberspace - December 1998

We had some serious fun putting this holiday issue together for you: We took a look at toys - ways to think about them, ways to buy them in cyberspace. Here's the lineup:

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Just for a little context, a quick look at e-commerce. Newsweek has declared '98 the year e-commerce came into its own (Martha Stewart's on the cover and in a sidebar supporting the thesis and touting Tough to argue with Martha!

The numbers show serious growth, too. The Yankee Group (of industry analysts) in Boston agrees, saying online shoppers will spend up to $2.55 billion this year, up from $800 million last year. A USAToday report cited similar figures.

Given those formidable e-commerce figures, is toy store owner Pete Gold feeling any threat to his bottom line? "No." Why? we asked. "Because most of my customers come here to 'squeeze the bananas.' They don't want to buy over the 'Net, unless it's something hot like Furbies." Pete said his store, A Child's Fantasy in Brewster, NY, had Furbies for a while, but "I sold every one."

The Furby phenomenon is undeniable (a site for last-minute Furby shopping can be found in Meaty Links below), but we think you'll have heard enough about Furbies by now. Here are some other toys we feel merit noting….

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Toys to watch

** Neurosmith's Music Blocks - suggested retail: $69.99 You've heard about all the software for toddlers coming on the market. Well, we tend to agree with most psychologists that this is not the kind of interaction (with abstract items on a screen) the littlest ones need. They seem to learn more interacting with real-life objects. Music Blocks is educational tech without the computer. Because research says music is a powerful tool for developing math and reading skills (not to mention musical ones), Neurosmith created a toy by which children 2 and older can make their own music. We know an 18-month-old who had a lot of fun with it, too.

Music Blocks has five colorful square blocks that live in spaces on a base that causes them to play phrases of Mozart's famous "Night Music." Each side of each block (total of 30) represents a different set of instruments (including singers' voices). Each time the child changes the order and placement of the blocks s/he creates a different variation on the theme. Replace the Mozart cartridge with "Rhythms of the World," and parents get a little relief from the oft-played melody. Neurosmith, a spin-off from educational software company Davidson & Associates (before it was bought by The Learning Company), will undoubtedly be expanding its line of musical cartridges (at $19.99 each) - for the benefit of parents as well as kids! This is an evolving smart toy for the littlest set, which is why it merits watching.

** Microsoft's ActiMates - suggested list price over $100, but selling on the Web for $49.99 Microsoft gets credit for sticking its neck out with these toys for ages 4 and up. Because they talk (with a vocabulary of more than 4,000 words), they can get a little annoying, and - though kids love to take their stuffed friends to bed with them - if they just touch Arthur's hand, he becomes an alarm clock! Not great for the middle of naptime.

Not surprisingly, Microsoft didn't design this toy (a programming genius at a little company in L.A. called FusionWorks did). Microsoft bought the technology and is now building on it and marketing it, in the form of interactive Barney, Arthur and D.W. at major retailers like Toys "R" Us. But back to why MS deserves credit: for marketing a cutting-edge toy that definitely does not yet have a mass market. Arthur naturally raises questions in parents, questions like: Will a doll this human-like scare my child? Is the material D.W. teaches her (such as telling time) better than what she teaches herself playing with silent dolls? Does interactivity replace role-playing, or other active uses of imagination?

But where these toys are most advanced is in their ability to interact with a Web site. You pay more for the computer pack (around $50), but it does expand what playing with Arthur or D.W. can teach your child, for example (according to Microsoft): story comprehension, spelling, and rhythm. Whether or not Arthur and D.W. succeed at teaching those subjects, playing with them might be a more tangible way for a young one to be introduced to the Web than mere monitor and mouse. BTW, ActiMates aren't the only such toy on the market; the newest arrivals are Mattel's interactive Pooh, Equity Toys's Babe, and of course Hasbro's Furby. And Microsoft soon, and somewhat predictably, will be bringing us interactive Teletubbies. Here's a very thorough New York Times piece on the pluses and minuses of these controversial toys.

** Mattel's Barbie - We cite Barbie not because her fashion sense is so cutting edge, but because her Web site is. However you feel about Barbie, her Web site is a milestone in the annals of e-commerce. Why? Because it shows that Mattel has figured out how to draw the line between retailer and manufacturer in a medium where both can sell a product directly to the consumer (as with toys, so with CDs, cars, computers or most any other product). In other words, when the Web arrived on the scene, suddenly manufacturers found themselves competing with their distributors! How did Mattel draw the line? Well, only a toymaker (not a retailer) can customize a toy. Your child can buy the latest assemblyline Barbie at eToys, but she can't create her own Barbie there. At, she can choose her Barbie's skin, hair, and eye color; hairstyle; clothing; accessories; and even personality. A custom Barbie costs more ($39.95), but she's one-of-a-kind. We think this is logical use of the electronic medium by a product maker. We also think this is one great solution to the very big problem e-commerce presented manufacturers when it came along. The Internet's changing the rules, and it's always fun to see conventional companies keeping pace.

BTW, a very hot "toy" this year that is part of the Barbie line is her digital camera; you can find a review of it in the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio.

** LEGO's MindStorms - retails for $219.99 (expansion kits cost about $50) This is not a toy. It's a toy bundle (for kids 11 and older). More than any other product we've seen, it represents the future of interactive toys for bigger kids (and adults!). We think more and more design-and-construction toys will have a community component. By "bundle," we mean this robot-creation kit includes toy parts, software for a desktop computer, motors, a microprocessor, and - most interesting of all - community. The community is space on the Web where fellow robot designers can find each other and collaborate in design and construction - or just show off their designs. With toys like these, kids don't manipulate a toy, they create it and potentially collaborate in its development. A lot more can be learned here (social skills, invention, programming, etc.), than in an interactive game. But heck, why complicate things? We think it's neat that living in a certain location doesn't have to keep kids from sharing ideas and creating their own interest communities. And if far-flung buddies want to actually work with each other's designs, there's always UPS. Maybe UPS will be smart and come up with a cool toy-swapping service: Pay to send one toy to a friend and the friend can send his back for free!

** Girl Games, Inc.'s - free! (for now) We think that, for teen-age girls, chat, e-mail (especially with instant messaging), and Web sites are just as much "toys" as nail polish and baby-size backpacks. Girl Games's approach is very "cross-platform" (TV, Web, CD-ROM) because their constant research on girls shows that this audience moves extremely fluidly among any and all communication tools: beepers, Web sites, chat rooms, discussion boards, phones, and "command central" (their bedrooms). Another "toy" to look for in the near future is "e-cessories," or wearable technology, one of Girl Games's current projects, says company president/founder Laura Groppe. Laura says that 40% of GG's resources goes to research on every aspect of teen girls' lives. It's the ongoing nature of that research, much of it done in girls' natural spaces, such as GG-co-hosted "slumber parties" (around the world, Laura says) that makes this particular company stand out. But more and more companies - including competitors of Girl Games, giant consumer product firms (e.g., Procter & Gamble, Motorola), and conventional toy makers (e.g., Mattel) - are figuring out and targeting this market of some 19 million girls with annual spending power of nearly $60 billion a year., celebrating the limit-pushing "Inner Betty" in all of us, is a TV-Web-CD-ROM collaboration in process between Girl Games and Fox Sports. The community part of Shred Betty, however, is up and running in the Web site now. (The fact that its different aspects can be introduced to the market over time is fascinating, too.) This "toy" could be considered the female counterpart of LEGO MindStorms. This, too, is a "bundled" product, one for which community is even more central. But the element worth watching here is the fact that a bundle of services and platforms is what this market demands. Teenagers move so fluidly from computer to phone (in fact, it's increasingly a simultaneous activity) that they're showing us something about our future: Computers, phones, and all the other technologies we use are blending together as a single tool, a kind of "communication appendage." And Girl Games is finding that no one is a better illustrator of this right now than a 14-year-old girl. So, not the Web site or the phone, but chat itself becomes the toy. (Two great articles that do a good job of describing teens' growing virtuosity with instant messaging can be found in the New York Times and USAToday. The latter has a sidebar on parental controls.)

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Maker of toys and scientists - an interview
Why, you might ask, did we interview a Wellesley College physics professor about toys? The answer is, Robbie Berg has been working with people at the MIT Media Lab since 1996 on programmable LEGO-like bricks called "Crickets," the "brains" of present and future toys and learning tools. Plus, he's a dad, which means he's very close to one of his testers. You can see the Wild Thing Action Contraption that seven-year-old Ben Berg designed on this page of the Famous Inventors Web site.

Robbie offers both a view of future toys and learning objects and a cautionary note. First we asked him about LEGO MindStorms, the toy "bundle" we mention above that first captured our imaginations last spring. Robbie's work at the Media Lab contributed to the development of MindStorms. He gave us three insights:

  1. Saying MindStorms kids are for 11-year-old kids is pushing it ("A lot of college students and beyond are buying them," he said).
  2. There's a precursor to MindStorms that shows us how product + community works: "One of the predecessors that came out of the Media Lab available to the robot hacker community was a type of programmable brick called the Handy Board, and there was a whole community that developed around it that was almost exclusively adults…. There's a lot of trading back and forth of ideas, and there are also some public events that have begun to spring up about robots…."
  3. Virtual community does have its drawbacks, Robbie feels. "I think it is very exciting that it is possible to begin having this sense of interacting with people you're not seeing on a day-to-day basis," he said. "But I'm a little bit worried and skeptical about communities that don't have any opportunity to come together physically - particularly with these kinds of toys that are physical and not virtual. There's something that I think gets lost by just sending pictures back and forth over the Web, and there's something to being able to pick things up and hold them and talk to people face to face…. A lot of what's going on in our group [at MIT] is an attempt to keep computers connected to physical objects."

We asked him to expand on that. "We're designing the construction kit for kids to use to build the instruments they need for their scientific investigations," he told us. "The education community is stressing the importance, when kids learn science, of their having a role in designing their experiments. Taking that starting premise a step further, part of designing their own experiment is having some say in what their instruments are going to look like, behave, and perform." He told us an 11-year-old girl built a bird feeder to study bird feeding behaviors! Using everyday objects like wood, LEGO motors, and "Cricket" programmable bricks, she programmed it to detect when a bird landed and take a picture of the bird. Another girl designed a "privacy tool" that took pictures of anyone opening her diary.

Just the name of Robbie's project is interesting: "Beyond Black Boxes." It has a double meaning, he says: "When we talk about black boxes in a scientific sense, it means we don't know what's going on inside the box. What scientists and kids in schools experience is, they press a button and it records some data in some mysterious process; we're talking about its opaqueness. Another aspect of these instruments - whether we're working in a research lab or on a grade-school experiment - is that they're esthetically very plain. They're not objects that have any sense of personal design. If you look at scientific instruments historically, that wasn't the case. Scientists were creating one-of-a-kind instruments they couldn't buy off the shelf, and they took a certain amount of pride in what they were creating. That has been lost in this century…. There isn't much of a sense of creative expression in the way your lab or instruments look. Our emphasis is to pay some attention to how these things are going to look."

Art is creative, play is creative. We see a trend developing in this research project. But first the art part: "We think it's very important to provide different entry points for people to get involved in these things," Robbie explained, "and paying attention to esthetics is very important to some people. Before we say anything to kids about scientific instruments, we say, 'Build a kinetic sculpture - something that can move, that you can plug a sensor into, that has motors that you can control.' We supply not just LEGOs, but different art materials they can attach. So we don't say anything about science, but about building a sculpture that responds to something in the environment. Then a sculpture that will display some information about what it's measuring…. Another theme we're interested in is seeing play and learning as not separate. Play is a wonderful way to learn."

Attending conferences, reading news reports and marketing materials, we see something of a convergence happening between learning and play. More and more we want toys to be educational, while we're requiring learning to be fun. We asked Robbie about this, and he brought up a piece in the New York Times about interactive Arthur and D.W., which Microsoft markets as educational toys. The article looks at the debate about what and how much they teach. Robbie's view is, "I'm a little skeptical of pushing too much specific curriculum into toys. Arthur seems to cross over a line somehow."

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Meaty Links

To toy reviewers…

In this case, they're kids. Duracell's 11th-annual "Top 10 Kids' Picks" lists the 1998 favorites of "516 children, ages 4 to 11, who 'play-tested' 26 of the year's best new toys and games for a two-week period (interestingly, Furby was not in the Top 10). Toy tests were conducted in September at YMCA after-school centers in 22 major cities nationwide." The toys don't necessarily require batteries, Duracell says. William Sears, a pediatrician and author of books on child-rearing, reviews the toys in the site. The kids' top pick was Power Chutes, which retails at $149.99.

The Oppenheim Toy Portfolio - Since 1989 the three Oppenheims have published "the only independent review of toys and children's media." The Oppenheim Toy Portfolio consists of a quarterly newsletter that they say is ad-free to maintain editorial integrity, an annual book of reviews, and a Web site, which lists their picks of the year, called "the Platinum Awards," in these categories: toys, books, videos, audio, computer products for kids, and products for kids with special needs.

To toy sellers…., the first all-Web bookseller started with books, then sold CDs and videos, and now gifts. "Gifts" includes personal electronics, computer and video games, and toys. But books is where this e-retailer got its start, so this is where we'd come for children's books, categorized by age, popularity, awards, Amazon's "Editor's Choice", and other topics. See Amazon's "10 Favorites Children's Picture Books of 1998" page.

BrainPlay is a new kid on the block. What distinguishes this e-seller of children's software and toys is its editorial focus. The site reportedly offers more than 2,000 reviews of the titles it sells (vastly more titles than most retail software stores), and BrainPlay has a team of independent editors writing the reviews. It appears that selling products supports their publishing effort, rather than the other way around (e.g., in Amazon, book reviews sell books). Not an easy tightrope to walk, but if they can maintain their editorial balance, they're doing parents an excellent service. And we can download software demos to boot.

Electronics Boutique seems to have just about everything of interest to players of video and PC-based interactive games. This is a large specialty retailer (500+ stores) that offers more than 2,000 software titles and the game systems and PC hardware that run those games. Their pages take a while to download, but any interactive game player can get around that miniscule problem! The site says the Top 10 games right now are: Knockout Kings, Zelda 64, Tomb Raider 3, Metal Gear Solid, Half Life, Crash Warped, WCW/NWO Revenge, NBA Live 99, Oddworld 2, and Goldeneye 007. But we can get even better information than this from our sons and grandsons, right?!

eToys is really well organized, which gives it high marks for holiday-shopping convenience. There are so many ways to find good toys here: Picks of the Week, Bestsellers, Favorites by Age, 20 under $20, Award Winners, As Advertised on TV, From the Movies, etc. You can also find toys by their brands (LEGO, BRIO, Sesame Street, etc.) and by category (construction toys, collectibles, puzzles, etc.). This is very smart presentation! Software, videos, music, and video games are here, too.

Furbies are by many accounts the No. 1 toy of the year, so we'd be remiss if we didn't give you a Furby link: the search-results page for Furby (6,000+ returns) at eBay. eBay is a "personal online trading community" (one-to-one trading in a Web-based auction format). There's also a "Toys and Beanies" page at eBay , with links to new (not just recycled) toys. As of this writing, you can even buy a case of 12 Furbies for $500 (oops, that was the first bid - now it's $710!). Such a deal. BTW, if you want to know what the heck a Furby is, eBay has kindly supplied a "What's All the Fuss About" page ! And if eBay doesn't cut it, here's one more resource: Excite's Furby Buying Guide.

Red Rocket calls itself "the Internet's smartest toy store." They're certainly smart about shipping costs: $.99 for any order over $35, and you can select the best-selling toys for a particular child's age range. Their "SuperSavers" page is worth a look; it may not have the season's Top 10, but - at this writing - some lovely dolls from Simon and Schuster were listed, and there's a nice yo-yo and book for beginners (true to their nature, yo-yo's have definitely bounced back as trendy toys).

Sears Wish Book - Now here is smart marketing - good ol' Sears building on a powerful brand. We're showing our age in saying we well remember poring over the paper version of this magical child's sourcebook. Part of its appeal was that it had everything - so many toys to look at all in one place, available whenever we wanted to dream. Well, the Web does that now, so this is where the Wish Book belongs. Good for Sears! And this site has a cute idea for kids: In it, they can make their own wish list and e-mail to someone who needs to have it (wish they had a send-an-e-mail-to-Santa feature).

Toys "R" Us was very slow out of the e-commerce gate (Web-originating sites like Red Rocket were way ahead), but this toy giant is now doing a good job with one-stop toy shopping. Toys "R" Us's particular innovation is its three ways to shop: by department (e.g., "Action Figures"), by Feature Shops (e.g., "A Bug's Life"), or by the toy search engine. The site seems quite slow to us - maybe it's just holiday traffic.

To toy makers….

Barbie - Because she has everything else, this somewhat controversial figure also has her own Web site. And, as we mentioned above, Mattel has come up with the Web version of a major manufacturing trend: customization. From mass media and mass production to one-to-one communications and product development. The Gap's selling custom jeans via an 800 number. Why shouldn't we be able to design, then buy, our own toys?

LEGO MindStorms - This very interesting toy, reviewed above, is a little late to roll out for the '98 holiday shopping season, but it's available in select stores (including LEGO Shop at Home, 1-800-453-4652), as well as their own online store. At $219.99, this is a pricey toy, but it promises a proportionate amount of creativity, learning, and collaboration (among older kids and adults). Keep in mind, most parents who give it can count on getting involved. For child MindStorms users who don't ask for help, next stop on the fun-and-learning curve: ThinkQuest.

To big, general holiday shopping sites…

ShopperConnection - Just in time for the holiday shopping frenzy, nine retailers have gotten together to create a shopping "portal" - their answer to's expanding product line, Wired News says. Here, you can buy anything from flowers to CDs to a Caribbean cruise.

Yahoo! Shopping - Yep, you can find Beanies and Furbies here, too! This mall aggregates a reported 2 million products in 14 categories from nearly 3,000 online stores (the Disney store offers a mere 2,000 products, reportedly).

And as for alternative (niche) shopping sites, Media Central recently ran a useful article on the subject. There are lots of sites' names but no links, unfortunately, so you'll have to put a search engine to work.

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What we've learned
The younger the child the more tangible his toys (or their play) need to be. That's what we hear again and again in our interviews, research, and conference attendance. This is not to say that spending hours in front of computers playing interactive games, chatting, or experimenting with identity is bad for an older child (and a 2-4-year-old wouldn't have the attention span anyway!). The perspective of MIT professor, psychologist, and sociologist Sherry Turkle is not heard enough. She has written whole books on the subject, including "Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet". Speaking at a Center for Media Education (CME) conference in October (see our report), Sherry strongly challenged the casual association of intense computer use with "addiction": "People assume the intensity and the time spent on the computer by children constitute addiction," she said. "I would like to innoculate people against the kind of research that comes out of using that word.... People usually approach the screen in a spirit of self-reflection. Teachers, parents, and counselors need to … see [kids' computer use] as a very productive place to work through issues." We think she is challenging generalization as much as a specific theory, and her view comes out of working with individual children for more than 20 years.

Robbie Berg, too, offers a useful view - about online community bundled with a toy, a subset of this issue. He's excited that kids can share, for example, their LEGO MindsStorms robot designs across the 'Net, unconstrained by geography. But he also sees the value of buddies being able to pick up, examine, and run each other's robots in a physical space. What is clear is that online community doesn't replace physical community - it only augments the experience. It does so by adding an opportunity to find, meet, and share with peers anywhere in the world. When communication itself is the objective, as with some teenagers, then chat could be considered the product - and the phone, instant messaging, chat rooms, beepers, and Web sites are just ways to get "there." We are watching our children becoming as fluid at "playing" their computers as Yo-Yo Ma is at playing his cello. As Prof. Sheri Parks of the University of Maryland points out, the products and services families are most interested in are those that help them be families. Likewise for cutting-edge, communicating teens.

Finally, it's become clear in the past few months that not enough public-sector research has been done on any of this. Researchers themselves say we need to know a whole lot more! Corporations do their own proprietary product and market research, but in academia more awareness, funding, and political support are needed for the kind of research we can all have access to. Sherry Turkle made a big point at the CME conference of calling for more colleagues in her field. And it was just this year that CME held that first conference on the impact of digital media on children. A major theme running through it was the need for more public awareness and debate, as well as more research. Researchers, corporate executives, foundations, and politicians all need to hear parents' concerns and interests in order to do the studies, create the products, give the funding, and make the laws we need to develop a high-quality experience for children online.

If you have ideas for how parents can better be heard in this widening discussion about the shaping of quality toys and media for children, please e-mail us via Any comments on the subject would be most welcome!

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We'd love to hear of your cybershopping exploits this year. Tell us what sites you've found useful and convenient or whether you shopped online at all! We'd love to hear what you have to say about anything written here. Just e-mail us!

Next month: With the new year, we're going weekly and less thematic with The Sage Letter. The news and views subscribers have received all along in Sage Extra! will be the format and frequency of our new, improved newsletter - archived in this Web site. Send us your comments and suggestion anytime! And here's wishing you a wonderful holiday season.

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