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Kids research toys CES

Mary McIlrath, Senior Vice President

What’s been interesting for YouthBeat® to observe over the last couple of years is how technology development has changed course.  For most of the 20-tens, the race was on for toy and technology companies to introduce coding toys to increasingly younger children.  Now that such options exist even for preschoolers, manufacturers are turning their attention to the ambience of the technology experience for kids and families. They want to provide authentically enjoyable, playful experiences and to encourage face-to-face human interaction, if the desired outcomes are measurable math and reading skill development, or just a good time.  It’s a more thoughtful approach than we’ve seen in the last couple of years.

Here are YouthBeat’s top takeaways from this year’s Las Vegas confab:

1.    The Cool New Toys

While there were lots of robotics and custom-modular-kits on display, putting the “A” in STEAM, YouthBeat® was most impressed with the developers who have listened to concerns about the isolation of children using digital devices.  They’re actively using technology to help youth engage with other real humans in their presence.

Pictionary Air, the augmented reality (AR) app from Mattel, uses an ordinary smartone camera to show the illustrator as well as the “air drawings” they make for the rest of the game’s participants.  No huge easels and paper at home? No problem, family game night is on!

Amico, the new gaming “console” from Intellivision (launching October 2020), is affordable at $200 and family-friendly in several ways. It comes with two controllers, though up to an additional six virtual ones can be added by downloading an app to smart devices. It’s portable—Sally can take it over to a friend’s house and access all of her games. It doesn’t tempt kids with in-app purchases.  And, a quarter of its library is “retro reimagined” games that parents will recall fondly, like Frogger, modernized for all-family enjoyment. Nintendo Switch had best be looking over its shoulder.

Possibly the coolest new solitary toy at CES is Tori’s catapult.  It took a while for YouthBeat® to get the hang of using it.  The physical toy (outside the digital space) is placed on a smart pad and aimed at a tablet screen to launch “stones” and solve logic puzzles. It’s a learning game that bridges right- and left-brain thinking and allows customization of the digital environment. Did we mention that it lets the user chuck stones at targets?  Really fun.

2.    Voice Activation Is the New Black

Alexa, Google Assistant and other smart speakers are proliferating in U.S. homes (1/3 of youth ages 6-18 live in a home with one, according to YouthBeat® data*). These can now activate other peripheral devices, and toy and game developers are all talking about their plans for voice-activated play and learning.  Parents like voice activation because they don’t feel guilty about extra “screen time” during the child’s use.  Smart speakers can also aid in-person board gameplay by arbitrating rule disputes and serving as game master while families play together. That underscores the “less techy” feeling.

Developers are also talking about how today’s Gen Alpha are growing up taking technology for granted (e.g., if Dad misses an exit, the GPS will “reroute” automatically, and YouTube is always available for a math tutorial).  Similarly, kids are used to talking to their smart speaker and having it recognize them, politely acquiesce to their requests, and give them the knowledge they’re seeking. It’s an interesting corollary to the “never alone” insight we discovered a few years ago with smart baby monitors allowing streaming devices to read or sing fussy babies back to sleep.  Let’s keep an eye on this phenomenon as kids grow up with smart speakers as surrogate siblings/assistants.

3.    Wellness Is 2020’s Buzzword

A huge chunk of the CES exhibition floor was taken up with wellness booths.  Most of these were aimed at adults—“smart” yoga mats, snowboard workout contraptions, air-purifying lamps, and all kinds of wearables for everything from fitness to sleep tracking to hair regrowth.  One headband even says it trains brains for better sleep.  All very futuristic.

Possibly the most interesting new interpretation of the term, however, is “Digital Wellness.” Think about all of the data breaches of the last few years—everything from Facebook to Cambridge Analytica to Target and other major retailers, and the hackers who have been breaking into smart home security systems and scaring the bejeezus out of kids and parents. In this context, digital wellness encompasses technological literacy on the part of parents who need to establish new usernames and strong passwords for each new Internet of Things (IoT) system they install.  That includes parental controls on streaming services, and awareness of privacy policies and how companies are using the information they collect on children.  

4.    Speaking of Privacy
Services use machine learning or artificial intelligence (AI) to meet their customers’ needs—for example, they can train speakers to “learn” the voices of the members of a household, and tailor responses to individuals based on their age and complexity of thinking skills. A 5-year-old and a 17-year-old might need different answers to questions like “how do I make a sandwich?” Similarly, Life360 enables parents to track teens’ driving habits as well as locations.  Parents need to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of such services carefully —the line between child safety and parental trust is different in every family.

Millennial parents, who pioneered the use of social media and often got humiliated by judgment of what they publicly posted to MySpace and “The” Facebook, may be vigilant and take the time to review privacy policies and set up dual verification systems for logging in to smart software—or they may be complacent, prioritizing convenience over hack-resistance.  Generation Z parents (up to age 25 now) and teens, may be the savvier consumers in terms of protecting their own and their families’ privacy.

For the youngest consumers, the U.S. government is currently reviewing the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), years ahead of its scheduled update.  This is in response to recent violations and large fines levied against well-meaning companies from V-Tech to Google (YouTube Kids). The digital landscape is changing so rapidly that everyone needs to look around and keep up.

5.    Interesting Footnotes

Toys ‘R Us is back, in a very bespoke way.  They have two flagship stores now, in New Jersey and Texas, and are planning more.  They’re focusing on quality experiential play, engagement, and delight—we wish them, and all the toymakers who work with them, great success. 

Future-casters in the kid tech space are focusing on education. They’re talking about underwater drones to impart science and environment lessons, and virtual reality (VR) chemistry-lesson software to make molecular concepts spatial and grasp-able by younger children than current curricula allow. We’re interested to see how this evolves.

We at YouthBeat® are looking forward to Toy Fair 2020 to see how these trends play out in a space that last year seemed to be inching back from the digital craze.  Stay tuned!

*Source: YouthBeat® Jan-June 2019

 

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