Future Gazing: The rise of tech toys

Jade Burke

By Jade Burke

July 12th 2017 at 11:36AM
UPDATED July 12th 2017 at 12:26PM
Future Gazing: The rise of tech toys

By 2021, the VR market is forecast to grow by 800 per cent, while as of 2016, the toys-to-life market hit €4.98bn and is tipped to double in the next three years. This year, Anki’s Cozmo is billed to be among the most sought after toys for Christmas. Jade Burke explores the growing tech toy space.

With technology now integral to our everyday lives, it’s no surprise that some of our greatest advancements in the space are trickling down in to toys.

Toys are transforming at an incredible velocity. It’s no longer just tablets; it’s app-connected toys, virtual reality, augmented reality, even mixed reality.

Tech toys topped the bill across this year’s Toy Fair season, tapping into the rise in child engagement with adult gadgets like smart phones, smart watches and even VR headsets.

Tech is undoubtedly shaping our future. In fact, around 65 per cent of children in school today will have a job that doesn’t currently exist, painting today’s tech toys more as the kind of tools needed to prepare them for the future.

“The world is increasingly becoming tech-driven so it’s important that kids have the chance to be hands-on with tech. We need to inspire and empower the digital creators of the future,” Bethany Koby, CEO of Tech Will Save Us, tells ToyNews.

Tech Will Save Us recently launched a campaign on Kickstarter to fuel the launch of three new STEAM make-it-yourself kits under the Dough Universe umbrella. It’s a move in line with the industry’s shift towards creating “child-friendly iterations of leading consumer tech launches.”

“FitBits for kids, tablets that teach and faux-computers; we are starting to see more and more brands trying to connect apps to everything in order to add ‘digital’ to the experience,” continues Koby.

But despite the gradual leaning towards tech within the industry, Koby insists that it still has a long way to go.

Reality check

Inextricably linked to education and learning, tech toys certainly offer children the opportunity to develop new skills at a young age. Recent years have seen an emphasis on coding, developing toys and products in line with the changing school curriculum.

However, the evolution of technological entertainment is no more evident than in the burgeoning virtual, augmented and even mixed reality markets.

Research company CCS Insight has revealed that the dedicated VR headset market is set to grow by 800 per cent between 2017 and 2021, hitting around 22 million units.

And if it’s any indication of its potential, in China, VR content revenue is forecast to be worth $3.6 billion within the next five years. Now, that paves quite the path for the toy industry.

“AR and VR allows children to engage with products or characters in a way that has not been possible before, while also adding value when compared to regular toys or books,” explains James Murden, co-founder of AliveLab, the team behind the AR reading concept, Mardles.

This is a sentiment echoed by the toy companies already closely aligned with the tech movement including the pre-school specialist, LeapFrog.

“We need to future proof our kids and embrace new technologies so that we can help encourage, engage and excite children to reach their full potential,” explains Leapfrog’s senior brand manager, Gail Fisher, speaking for a firm who carved a market for tech-focused pre-school toys.

Playing it safe

As tech evolves, so too do the concerns around child safety in a digital age. Recent reports of hackers accessing databases of information have thrown up issues around digital privacy laws, while the concept of ‘spy toys,’ by which connected toys have been commandeered by hackers through simple Bluetooth or wi-fi settings, does highlight its darker side. In the most, these security breaches could have been avoided with simple

In the most, these security breaches could have been avoided with simple firewall or security software, but a number of start-ups are now tackling the issue of online exposure children suffer unwillingly on a daily basis.

Noting the demand among kids for Facebook-like online interactivity, Empath Interactive has recently detailed its Elfkins Communications Robot, a new smart toy that enables a safe, screen-free network among children and their family.

It’s a launch that also paves a new way for bringing imaginative play in line with tech toys, a point always contested among the devoutly traditional corners of the toy industry.

“I think it’s a shame if children spend a huge amount of time on tablets and ‘being connected’ to a device, as a balance of active, creative play and interacting with others face to face is important,” argues owner of Jolly’s Toys, Charlotte Croser.

However, changes within the genetic make-up of traditional parenting and homestead, often means face to face interaction is not always achievable. So how is tech helping to bring families together?

Patrick Chiang, founder and CEO of Elfkins believes his firm is offering family members the chance to keep in touch, despite the strains of today’s working habits.

“We are enabling children and their families to connect more frequently when people are not together and doing it in a way that fits into how children engage naturally,” he explains.

“While technology has enabled some new play patterns, I believe the opportunity is really in how it enhances traditional ones. For us, it is more important to focus on the action it enables than the way it enables it.”

Of course, with advances in technology being discovered almost daily, surely there is an argument here not to dress tech toys in the cloaks of child development and education too much?

Can tech and toys both be embraced for exactly what they are, a bit of fun?

The toys-to-life movement has done this staggeringly well to date. A marketplace kickstarted back in 2013 with the launch of Activision’s Skylanders, it has become a sector that, as of 2016, is worth €4.98 billion (iDate).

With a wealth of new and major players in the space, including Nintendo with Amiibo, LEGO Dimensions, Ubisoft’s recent E3 launch Starlink: Battle for Atlas and Tomy’s own Lightseekers, the market is now expected to double by 2020.

While the developmental benefits of toys-to-life are yet to be uncovered, recent launches in the space from Ubisoft, Tomy and LEGO have observed the medium of play taking huge steps forwards in its synergy between video games and toys.

Couple this with the growing calls for VR, AR and MR and we could just be on the brink of a new dawn for tech-driven toys.