NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Remember those once high-tech toys? The Easy Bake Oven, Speak & Spell, even Furby? Well, this year's American International Toy Fair in New York City makes them all look like cardboard boxes. Toy Fair, the largest toy trade show in the Western Hemisphere, is chock full of some of the most high-tech, sophisticated toys you can imagine.
It's partly because of what's known in the marketing industry as KGOY - kids getting younger older, or age compression. Here to tell us what that means and what chat diva Barbie sounds like is reporter Alexander Gelfand. He's been covering Toy Fair for Wired magazine. He's with us from Brooklyn in New York. Nice to have you on the program today.
Mr. ALEXANDER GELFAND (Reporter, Wired Magazine): Thank you very much, Neal. Actually, I'm in Queens. Much better than Brooklyn.
CONAN: Much better than Brooklyn. Of course. And a winter wonderland today, and for the next couple of days. I wonder, are your kid's toys more grown up? Let us know what you think about it. Give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is email@example.com.
Alexander, explain KGOY to us.
Mr. GELFAND: Well, the whole idea behind this phenomenon, which is also known as age compression, is that younger and younger kids are able to deal with more and more sophisticated stuff. And it's something that marketers talk about with respect to a lot of industries, and it certainly applies in the case of the toy industry.
The basic idea is really that, you know, something that might have been considered age appropriate, as they say in the toy industry, for - oh, I don't know, a 12-year-old five years ago would now be considered, you know, appropriate for a 10-year-old or an eight-year-old or a four-year-old, depending on what we're talking about. And kids get sort of tired of that stuff at an early age as well. They're ready to move on to things that would once have been considered appropriate only for much older kids.
CONAN: And give us a for instance. How do you see this in the products out there on the floor?
Mr. GELFAND: Oh, well, gosh. I guess it's cropping up in all kinds of ways. One of the things that really struck me, in which I wrote a bit for a preview of the Toy Fair, but which I actually got to see on the floor just the other day, were some products that were being introduced by a Montreal-based company called Kutoka.
And Kutoka is distributing stuff in North America for a very large French toy company called Smoby - the French equivalent of Mattel or Hasbro. And they are bundling it with some of their own software. So, for example, Kutoka is distributing a Smoby pen and tablet set very similar to the kinds of things that adult graphic designers use. You've got a little pen that you can use like a mouse and a drawing tablet. And they're also introducing optical mice that are made specifically for little, tiny hands.
And they bundled this with some very powerful graphic software that allows kids to do that kinds of things that adults do with something like Photoshop. And in speaking with Richard Vincent - who is the CEO and creative director of Kutoka up in Montreal - and he mentioned that some people might expect that little kids, really little kids - two, three, four-year-old kids - might have a little trouble with some of these adult computer peripherals just because, you know, their motor skills are still developing. But Richard mentioned that, you know, he's seen two-year-olds becoming very comfortable with this stuff, and it's almost unnerving.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Well, you mentioned Richard Vincent, the creative director of Kutoka Interactive Toys, and he's with us now on the phone as well. Mr. Vincent, nice of you to be with us today.
Mr. RICHARD VINCENT (CEO, Kutoka Interactive Toys): Thank you very much.
CONAN: And when we have Alexander Gelfand talk about optical mice for very young children, he's not talking about animated characters on a screen. He's talking about the things we use to manipulate our computers, correct?
Mr. VINCENT: Exactly. So as soon as you get a mouse small enough to fit in those little hands, those guys can do wonders with them.
CONAN: And how little are they?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. VINCENT: Well, I mean, I started designing software for children 10 years ago. And what I used to design for a three-year-old now fits perfectly to a 2-year-old.
CONAN: And two-year-olds are able to deal with this?
Mr. VINCENT: They're able to find their way around the screen. They're able to control the mouse. They're able to do things that, frankly, surprise me.
CONAN: And are you making these computers out of titanium, because anything else my two-year-old would have destroyed in about 30 seconds.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. VINCENT: Well, you know, I like to think of it as lap-ware, so you're there with your child to make sure that he doesn't destroy things. But as soon as you get their attention going the right direction and you tell them, you know, take the mouse-click over there, these are things that - these are commands that 10 years ago small children could not imagine doing, and now they do.
CONAN: And I wonder, is this being driven by demand from kids, or is this being driven by the fact that the technology's available?
Mr. VINCENT: Well, I think the technology is part of it, and I think the fact that the parents are friendlier with that technology now makes a big difference, too. So I mean, 10 years ago you were also afraid to let your child near the machine. Now you're less afraid.
And I think as well - I don't know. It's as if the children are picking much of this stuff up by osmosis. They understand things like drag and drop, which a concept 10 years ago was alien to everybody, including adults. And then you see them go click, oh yeah, I can move this. And that's surprising.
CONAN: And that's surprising. And is there any - are you encountering any marketing resistance from parents who may not be comfortable seeing their kids on computers, or indeed with some of these toys going on the Web so early?
Mr. VINCENT: Well, going on the Web, you see a lot of resistance. But working on the computer at home, I think parents are in fact even asking and requesting software even younger. We get a lot of requests for baby-ware. We don't have any, but we're looking at it. We have a lot of parents saying oh, gee, you know, I know computer skills are going to be the future for my child and I need to get them going as soon as possible.
CONAN: And on the other end of the scale, I think that electronic tablet that we were talking about, is that envisioned for both kids and the idea that their parents might buy them for them because they might use it, too?
Mr. VINCENT: Yes, exactly. It's a thing that they can share, and I think that's what's interesting about our technology, it's sort of leveling things where you had people that were oh, well I'm in charge of the computer and nobody else can touch it. Now it's really is a family machine.
CONAN: We're talking with Richard Vincent, who's the CEO of Kutoka Interactive, and with Alexander Gelfand, who's covering the Toy Fair for Wired magazine. If you'd like to join the conversation about the trend towards higher-tech toys, 800-989-8255. And let's get Brianna(ph) on the line, Brianna with us from Vancouver in Washington.
BRIANNA (Caller): Hi. I have two kids, both under two right now, but I remember growing up. I was 10 years old before my mom let me touch her computer, let alone with play with it. But now my 2-year-old, he follows me into the computer room; and he has his own keyboard because it's so cheap to play with. I'm wondering if part of the reason toys are getting - we've got some of this age compression is because we're letting our kids play with these toys at younger ages because the toys are cheaper. The technology's cheaper.
CONAN: Alexander Gelfand, it seems to be a reciprocal device.
Mr. GELFAND: Yeah. Well, I think that Brianna makes a really good point, which has to do with the declining cost of electronic components. And that's a huge factor driving the incorporation of ever-more sophisticated electronics and even robotics technology into children's toys.
You know, manufacturers and toy companies are certainly responding to demand both from kids and from parents. But they couldn't necessarily make this stuff available, or as easily available, or as attractive to parents, certainly, if they couldn't make it relatively cheap, relatively inexpensive.
And that's certainly the case here. You know, there are children's laptops being produced by a whole bunch of companies. There are several different kinds on offer - or on display, rather - at the Toy Fair, and some of them are quite sophisticated.
There are also other kinds of electronic devices on display at the Toy Fair which are really striking, and they are not that expensive. There's a children's PDA called the Gadget, produced by a company called VTech, which is loaded with features. I mean, I don't own a PDA. I don't have a Blackberry, but this thing almost made me envious.
It's got a built-in digital camera. You can shoot digital video on it. You can watch it on your own TV. It's got a built-in radio frequency text messenger and voice communication thing. It works like a walkie-talkie. You can play games on it. And it's going to sell for just under $100. That's an awful lot of technology packed into a small device, and it's really pretty remarkable.
CONAN: Brianna, thanks very much.
BRIANNA: I just wanted to say my son's favorite toy this summer was picking up rocks and putting them in the watering can.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Yeah, okay.
BRIANNA: Thank you.
CONAN: Thank you very much for that. And let's get Julie(ph) on the line. Julie's with us from southwestern Ohio.
JULIE (Caller): Hello.
JULIE: Love your program.
CONAN: Thank you.
JULIE: I had an anecdote about cardboard boxes, which you mentioned a bit ago.
JULIE: When my kids were little, we were moving. And the neighbors came over with their kids and said let your kids come over to our house because we know their toys are packed. All the neighborhood kids stayed at our house and played with the cardboard boxes that the movers had brought.
CONAN: Wasn't the cardboard box voted last year, Alexander Gelfand, the toy of the year?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GELFAND: I don't know. I have to say, I have a 20-month-old son, and he likes cardboard boxes, too. He'll play with just about anything.
CONAN: Richard Vincent, do your kids play with cardboard boxes?
Mr. VINCENT: Sure they do. But I think that what's happened over time is that they have certain expectations, and when in they get in that cardboard box, they look for the buttons.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. VINCENT: When we give them a stuffed toy, they go, why doesn't it talk?
CONAN: And Julie, I wonder did your kids ever ask Santa to bring them a cardboard box for Christmas?
(Soundbite of laughter)
JULIE: No, but when they were small, they played with the boxes instead of what was in them when they opened their presents.
CONAN: That's true enough. Julie, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.
JULIE: Thanks for the program.
CONAN: Okay. And we'd like to thank our guests, first Richard Vincent, the CEO of Kutoka Interactive, who joined us from the Toy Fair in New York City. Thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. VINCENT: My pleasure.
CONAN: And Alexander Gelfand, who's with us from Queens in New York, the great borough there, who's covering the Toy Fair for Wired news. Appreciate your time today, as well.
Mr. GELFAND: Thank you very much, Neal.
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