According to The NPD Group, US households with kids ages 4-14 have, on average, eleven consumer electronic devices; one-third of US parents plan to buy at least one additional electronic product for their child in the coming year.
"Kids are drawn to the latest and greatest digital devices just as their parents are," says Anita Frazier, industry analyst, at NPD. "They have no fear of technology and adopt it easily and without fanfare, making these devices a part of their everyday lives. There is no sign of this trend reversing."
This constant engagement with television, the internet, digital cameras, cell phones and mobile devices is giving rise to increasingly popular online and offline play patterns. Driving the latest innovations in the world of play are web-connected toys and new online worlds. Toy companies and brands are making their way into new markets with the assistance of site developers who are looking to monetise their investments through a wider variety of business models.
"Every toy company should be considering an online component of their brand to engage audiences," says Christopher Sherman, executive director of Show Initiative and producer of the Engage! Expo (formerly Virtual Words) trade show.
Combining toys with new technology solutions creates a powerful range of opportunities for toymakers.
Capitalising on the synergies that are powering technology-enabled play, the Toy Industry Association’s American International Toy Fair and Engage! Expo will co-locate for the first time in February 2010 at the Javits Convention Center in New York. Toy Fair will span the four-day period of 14th-17th February, which Engage! Expo will overlap on February 16th-17th.
A few of the cutting edge trends that are shaping virtual worlds, the immersive web and interactive entertainment include:
Affordable and creative online play
This is the name of the game in a number of economically-priced virtual worlds where, for a nominal fee, kids unlock fun features and adventure.
Bandai’s Harumika encourages girls to explore and express their personal fashion style with a virtual fashion closet full of design options. Included in the offline starter kit are exclusive patent-pending mini mannequins, fabric swatches and a design stylus tool used to tailor fashions to fit the mannequin’s petite curves, all with no sewing required.
On a free companion website customised for the European market (www.harumika.eu), girls can upload photographs of their fashion creations, post them in the shared Atelier gallery, enter design contests, vote to choose Best Stylist of the week and engage in mini games.
"Girls love the Harumika concept since it allows them to style their imaginations, share their designs with friends, and access an online community of like-minded fashionistas," explains Danielle Armbrust, Bandai’s director of marketing, Girls Division.
Meanwhile, TechnoSource has introduced SmileyCentral.com, a lively site where kids can create and share emoticons – the smiley faces used to punctuate emails and text messages – with friends and family.
USB upload and download models
The Club Penguin DS game from Disney and Nintendo, and the Nanovor products from Smith & Tinker use updated USB dual-link technology. This process connects kids in an entirely novel way by allowing players to both upload and download gaming challenges to a handheld device from a related virtual world. Mattel’s Dora Explorer Girls Dora Links doll and accessory line also combines offline doll play with a rich and immersive online world that includes exciting, break frame play options.
MMOG models (massively multi-player online gaming)
Already popular with adults, new MMOG models have been developed with kids in mind. Launched in 2009, 10Vox Entertainment’s Tracksters features an exciting racing performance vehicle model while Upper Deck’s Huntik:Seekers and Treasures is a new adventure gaming model. Both brands combine offline products such as trading cards with companion online worlds where players actively engage with from four to eight gamers online.
TechnoSource’s Printies is a new product that encourages kids to create, design and make their own personalized 3-D collectible stuffed toy using a PC, an inkjet printer and special patent-pending Printies fabric sheets. FAMPS (Feelings, Attitudes, Moods, Personality) for girls, and U-Create Games and U-Create Music products from Mattel’s Radica division, also use CD-ROM-based applications to unlock online fun and games.
Available on a number of popular websites, players can engage in gaming for either free or pay-as-you-go models. Through single micro-transactions, players can purchase individual components to enhance their avatar – a visual “handle” or display appearance – as well as other web upgrades designed to enhance play. Premium models provide exclusive access to expanded areas of virtual worlds such as Mattel’s UB Funkeys, Dora Explorer Girls, and Barbiegirls.com.
In a different twist, Disney Fairies Clickables from Disney and TechnoSource offer an offline product—a charm bracelet—which uploads micro-currency accessories (generally under $9.95, with many priced at $1 or $2) to the virtual world. Insiders expect this model to be expanded in 2010.
“While some online games are absolutely finding success incorporating micro-transactions as a model, Disney takes a different approach for our virtual worlds, allowing kids to earn in-game currencies instead as a reward for gameplay,” said Courtney Simmons, vice president, communications, Disney Interactive Media Group.
“In virtual worlds like Toontown Online and Club Penguin, items like jelly beans and coins provide kids with an opportunity to earn and spend virtual currency as members of those communities, that isn’t tied to real money transactions.”
In addition to these overarching trends, there are a number of particularly innovative models deserving of special attention. Topps 3D Live Sports trading cards use augmented reality – a technology where real images are combined with virtual ones. When positioned in front of a webcam, the cards project a three-dimensional avatar of the sports player on the computer screen. When the card is rotated, the figure rotates in full perspective. The player can actually be seen playing his or her position as pitcher, outfielder, quarterback, receiver, kicker, etc.
This introduction will appeal to both adult and kid collectors and is expected to help re-energize sluggish sports trading card sales.
Future online enhancements will include more sophisticated augmented reality models, holographic imaging and touch screen applications. New products will also allow kids to access Wifi connections to power their portable digital devices. Video gaming models and handheld games that offer instant feedback and interaction will increasingly yield toys and games with hybrid capabilities.
As these exciting technologies make their way into children’s products during 2010, online virtual worlds will dazzle kids of all ages as they deepen their engagement with popular brands.