How Internet of Things (IoT) Technology is Used in Toys
As the world becomes more and more reliant on technology like IoT, it has become more important than ever to start kids early in using computers and electronics. A child who grows up using tech is one who will have the kind of intuitive familiarity with it that is crucial to success in the modern workplace. Science has long supported the common sense knowledge that children learn through play, and it naturally follows that how kids play influences how they learn.
The toy industry has been well aware of the importance of tech-based toys for years, and it’s no surprise that IoT-enabled smart toys are a multiple billion dollar market. There are countless connected toys, smart toys, and other toys that leverage the power of the Internet of Things. Here are some of our favorites.
Almost certainly the first toy that could be described as smart or connected, the Furby is infamous for the Christmas time craze it incited in the late 1990s. The toy predated the modern Internet of Things by several years, but it certainly inspired later toy developments. The adorable, sleepy-eyed plush toy resembles something like a cross between an owl and a mouse, and the initial offering was notable for its uncanny ability to seemingly learn English from its surroundings.
That was actually a myth. The truth is, the original Furby came pre-programmed with every word in its vocabulary. The designers programmed it to gradually use more and more of its pre-programmed phrases as time went on, simulating the language learning process. The technology for a true learning toy may not have existed at the time of the initial Furby’s release, but the toy inspired countless innovations and developments in the toy industry.
At the other end of the sophistication spectrum is the Sphero and its related products. Small, sleek, and white, the Sphero is a versatile robot that is programmable through a simple coding interface, or controllable via a smartphone app. The Sphero is equipped with Bluetooth capabilities as well as an accelerometer and gyroscope, and can easily make its way around an environment given the right instructions.
In an amazing piece of marketing synergy, in 2015 Sphero partnered with Disney to create the BB-8 App-Enabled Droid. The Sphero’s resemblance to the scene-stealing robotic star of Star Wars: The Force Awakens did not go unnoticed by executives at either company, and the branded bot has been delighting kids of all ages since.
This kind of connected toy showcases everything that is good about Internet of Things enabled toys. The Sphero and its kin leverage all the amazing technology IoT has brought us, and watching it intelligently maneuver around an environment is a joy. At the same time, its relatively simple programming interface helps kids learn the basics of computer science from an early age. Coding is considered to be one of the most important skills today’s young people can learn. Toys like the Sphero are, in a very real sense, helping to ensure our nation’s continued importance in the global economy.
Toys to Life
Video games are by definition rooted in the purely digital world, but toy manufacturers have found great success integrating them with physical toys using IoT techniques. The first entry in the Skylanders franchise was released in 2011, and was soon joined by Disney Infinity in 2013, Lego Dimensions in 2015, and Nintendo’s Amiibo line, which is tied to the Nintendo platform and spans multiple games. These games comprise the so-called Toys to Life genre, and are linked by their utilization of physical toys to influence the world of the video game.
The IoT aspects of all three game franchises are similar. Players acquire real-life, physical toys representing game characters, weapons, or other items. Placing them on an RFID reader or similar device custom-designed for the game, the toy virtually enters the game world. The simple amazement and wonder that is brought on by holding a physical object and then literally placing it into the video game cannot be overstated, and the financial success the Toys to Life genre proves the point. Although Disney Infinity was pulled from production in 2016, the other three franchises are going strong.
Perhaps the most “connected” of major offerings in the connected toy market is Mattel’s Hello Barbie, which was released in 2015. The doll features Wi-Fi capabilities and a constant connection to developer ToyTalk’s cloud-based servers. Children can speak with Hello Barbie in plain English and receive intelligent responses based on ToyTalk’s established chatterbot technology. Over time, the doll tells stories that will be updated over time at the server end.
Hello Barbie has received some criticism for listening and recording children’s conversations, which it necessarily must do in order for the technology to work. However, taken at a purely conceptual level, the doll is truly amazing. It may be the first toy that can actually be patched and updated over time to stay relevant to children’s’ interests. The firm promises to keep Barbie current with the latest pop culture trends and other conversational topics, as well as improving its conversational engine.
Future: Disney Linux Light Bulb
The technology of toys is always a work in progress, of course. Leading toy manufacturers invest in research and development as much as leaders in any industry, and entertainment luminary Disney may have hit upon one of the most exciting Internet of Things applications across all industries. Their Linux Light Bulbs, which were created in cooperation with a major Swiss university, allow for machine-to-machine communication using LEDs. Essentially, IoT devices equipped with Linux Light Bulbs can talk to each other using flashing lights.
Comparisons to Toy Story aside, this may represent a major breakthrough for not just connected toys, but also smart homes, connected cars, and a score of other IoT products and services. A local network comprised of low-energy, reliable, and inexpensive flashing lights has obvious benefits to any Internet of Things product that relies on passing data between objects that are physically close to each other.
The toy industry may just have transformed the Internet of Things as we know it, and we’ll be watching closely to see what comes of the Linux Light Bulbs.