A TECHIE TOUR OF THE INTERNATIONAL TOY FAIR

Today's guest blogger is Anders Frick, a technology journalist from Lund, Sweden, who is working at IEEE Spectrum as part of a program sponsored by Vinnova, a Swedish governmental agency that encourages innovation.


Anders Frick


Toys are for kids, but toy fairs are not. Strangely enough, the American International Toy Fair, the biggest of its kind in the Western Hemisphere, bars all kids. To get past the guards, even journalists must prove they are at least 18 years old. And so middle-aged men and women are all you see as you go up and down the aisles, here in New York City's Javits Center, a glass-and-steel compound large enough to park airliners in.

Photo: ANDERS FRICK

NOT FOR KIDS: The 2007 American International Toy Fair features every plaything imaginable—but is strictly an adult affair.

The grown-ups sometimes stop to eye actors in fancy dress, but most of them walk right past the regulars—yet another talking robotic doll, yet another LED-powered flashing light. They are mostly trying to decide what to put on shop shelves for Christmas, and often they have particular market segments in mind: Maybe a traditional wooden horse for the toddlers, some sculpturing foam for the primary-school kids, and a hydrogen-powered Fuel Cell Car or a radio-controlled helicopter for the 'tweens.

Photo: ANDERS FRICK

MORE THAN A TOY: Horizon's H-Racer and fueling station are a first attempt to master the complexity of hydrogen power.

As a Swedish tech journalist, camping out here at IEEE Spectrum for a few months, I must say I have never before seen so much stuff hawked to so many people who would never want any of it for themselves. Why not bring in the end users—the kids—to serve as judges? Maybe they will end up spurning the game that supposedly improves school performance for the four-meter-tall plush giraffes. I bet most kids would much rather play with the box it comes in anyway.

Photo: ANDERS FRICK

GOOD AND GOOEY: Fantasma Foam is a novelty product that must be good for something, but we couldn't figure out what.

There are some basic rules: Toys should be fun, and they should not break after five minutes of use. There are also some clear trends. Once upon a time, toys were often miniature versions of things taken from the adult world, but today, they do not necessarily need to represent anything "real." Examples include green gunk that squishes moistly in your hand and wands that spell out words in the air when you wave them rapidly back and forth. Furthermore, it is an advantage if the toy provides a challenge, even if it doesn't make kids smarter.

Photo: ANDERS FRICK

PLAYING IN SNOW: If you live in a warm climate, your kids might have fun making their own snow to play with.

Some companies were clearly using brain-claims to target newbie parents. One toymaker asserted that a product would efficiently stimulate both the right and the left part of the brain. Who doesn't want to have smart kids? And who wants an unbalanced kid who tips to the left or the right?

Three toys were my favorites:

  • Instant snow (photo to right). Take white powder, add water, stir and, voilà, cold snow for your amusement. Evaporation makes it cold; when the powder's dry, you can re-hydrate it again.

  • The Mentos/Coke fountain kit. Screw the cap off a bottle of soda, attach the plastic tube loaded with Mentos mints to the neck, pull out the string, and run to a safe distance. Then watch suds shoot 30 feet in the air.

  • Astrojax. By putting three balls on a string instead of just one, this yo-yo derivative lets you set up complex, orbiting patterns. Fun even for kids who are not budding physicists.

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