Toy Fair: Big-Ticket High Tech

With iPods and cell phones in abundance, the toy industry wants to come up with new electronic gadgets. At the annual Toy Fair in New York City, there are plenty of innovative ideas, but most come at a hefty price.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A warning to parents: the following report may end up causing you a lot of money. It's about the annual Toy Fair in New York City where the newest games and toys are unveiled. This year, the hottest products are packed with electronics. They're noisy, and they cost a bundle.

NPR's Robert Smith checked out the toy selection.

ROBERT SMITH: It's built like a piece of military hardware with infrared sensors and radio frequency tags. It has a memory chip and voice-recognition software. And thank goodness it's wearing a diaper.

(Soundbite of talking doll)

LITTLE MOMMY DOLL: Uh-oh, Mama. Go potty.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: This Little Mommy's Doll from Mattel cuddles, recognizes objects and responds to her own name. In fact, she could probably strike up a conversation with Hasbro's talking parrot - Squawkers McCaw.

Unidentified Woman #1: Hi, Squawkers.

(Soundbite of talking toy parrot)

SQUAWKERS MCCAW: Hello.

Unidentified Woman #1: He's like a real parrot. He has touch sensors. So when I touched his back…

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: With video games and iPods competing for kids' attention, the toy industry's has had to pump up its own electronic innovation. Everywhere at the Toy Fair are playthings that recognize you, talk back, and generally make a ruckus.

Duncan Billing is the chief marketing officer of Hasbro.

Mr. DUNCAN BILLING (Chief Marketing Officer, Hasbro): Every year, technology advances, and we can use those advances to enhance play experiences.

SMITH: Well, is there anything that you can't put a chip in?

Mr. BILLING: Well, probably. But we haven't thought of one yet.

SMITH: The technology does come at a price. Both the baby doll and the parrot will probably retail for $69.99, a price that Billing figures is reasonable for some parents.

Mr. BILLING: And actually, if you look at video games, video games have really opened consumers minds to higher price points. They're paying 50 or $60 for a video game. They're paying, what - $600 for PS3? They're paying $300 for a Nintendo Wii, and there's no reason why they wouldn't pay that for really great toys.

SMITH: Of course, there is a larger price to pay for all these technological toys: a parent's sanity.

(Soundbite of Rubik's Revolution toy)

RUBIK'S REVOLUTION TOY: Press brown to play Light Speed. Press yellow to play Rabbit in Charge.

SMITH: Remember the quiet Rubik's Cube? It's now Rubik's Revolution. Toy executive Eric Levin rotates the blinking cube quickly in his hands.

Mr. ERIC LEVIN (Executive Vice President, Techno Source): And now every time you hit the light, another light turns on somewhere. Every time you do it, the next light stays on for a shorter period of time, and that ticking noise gets faster and faster, creating a really great sense of panic.

(Soundbite of buzzing and beeping sounds)

SMITH: It's just one of the traditional toys that's gone high-tech. The Toy Fair features LEGO sets with infrared sensors and bricks that make sounds. There's a Barbie Doll that lip-synchs along with your iPod. Even the clothing at the Toy Fair has something to say.

(Soundbite of "Hokey Pokey" Skirt)

HOKEY POKEY SKIRT TOY: (Singing) You do the Hokey Pokey and you dance yourself around. That's what it's all about.

SMITH: That's the "Hokey Pokey" skirts from the Acting Out Company. They're putting at a whole line of musical clothing.

Unidentified Woman #2: We have "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy."

(Soundbite of song, "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy")

Unidentified Woman #2: We have a new skirt that plays a "Chicken Dance."

(Soundbite of song, "Chicken Dance")

SMITH: It would be like a bell on a cat. You'll always know where your little daughter is.

Unidentified Woman #2: She could wear it to the supermarket, and you can't lose her.

SMITH: Each of these toys is pretty amusing by itself. But what happens when the little girl wearing the chicken dance-skirt pulls out Mattel's new Pizza-Maker Elmo doll?

(Soundbite of Elmo Doll)

PIZZA-MAKER ELMO DOLL: (Singing) The time to play with dough and then we throw it…

SMITH: While her brother turns on Hasbro's Whack-a-Mole Tower.

(Soundbite of Hasbro's Guacamole tower)

WHACK-A-MOLE TOWER TOY: Ready? Go!

(Soundbite of music)

SMITH: The lesson for parents from the Toy Fair: stock up on batteries and earplugs.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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