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The other IoT: the Internet of Toys

Like it or not, the Internet of Things (IoT) is happening. Ceiling fans, thermostats, coffee makers, refrigerators, and light bulbs are all finding their way to the Web. The world is undoubtedly becoming more connected, bringing with it an estimated 200 billion connected objects by 2020 (nearly 26 connected objects for every human on earth), with an estimated value ranging between 14 and19+ trillion dollars across the global economy.

But what happens when that human with 26 connected devices is a child? What happens when that connected object isn’t just a lightbulb, but a toy that interacts with you and your surroundings? From modernizing our childhood toys to ringing in the future of play, the trends in the Internet of Toys arena are shaping the future of how children are introduced and exposed to technology.

The long road to connectivity

Technology and toys have intersected over the last century with varying degrees of success. Starting around the 1930s, children were solving radio clues with their toy cipher rings (picture young Ralphie using his ring to decode his Ovaltine message in A Christmas Story). In the mid 1980s, toy manufacturer World of Wonder introduced Teddy Ruxpin to the masses, integrating the ability to bring the plush bear to life through a series of tapes that could be played via a built in cassette player.

And in the last decade, we’ve seen an exponential growth in game consoles that allow players to purchase downloadable content to keep games new and exciting for months and even years after the initial purchase. While the concept is not necessarily new, the ability to instantaneously access incredible amounts of information will change the global perception of what a toy is capable of.

The current landscape

Toy companies are feverishly innovating in this space, and are being greeted with various levels of enthusiasm by consumers. In recent weeks, we have seen both sides of the spectrum. Barbie went through hard times as Mattel released Hello Barbie, a cloud-connected doll that raised eyebrows amongst parents who were uncomfortable with Barbie listening to children.

Yet, only a week later, CogniToys reached $275,000 in kickstarter funding by offering a toy that does essentially the same thing via IBM’s Watson platform, using a “dialogue engine to utilize some of the most advanced language processing algorithms available driving the personalization of our platform, and keeping the interaction going between toy and child.”

The market has already spanned the gamut of connectivity. On one hand, you have Mattel’s Apptivity, which combines a tablet with specially designed toys, such as Hot Wheels that can race across the screen on digitized race tracks. On the other hand, you have the digital world being recreated into the physical world, like Knex’s Angry Birds set, where children can build and destroy structures they had only previously seen on a screen.

And for you Star Wars fans, Hasbro announced Furbacca – a physical and digital rich app-augmented experience due to launch this fall, ahead of the next Star Wars installment. Peppered with his own set of sensors and app (iOS and Android) children can virtually feed, bathe, and hatch the toy, providing yet another variant of how physical toys and connectivity can merge.

It’s clear that the connected toy market is wide-open. It comes down to which manufacturer is going to show, at scale, how children, technology and playtime converge in a fashion that parents are willing to accept.

There’s more at stake than just revenue

According to the Toy Industry Association, U.S. domestic toy sale estimates in 2014 were approximately $22 billion. The financial opportunity is enormous, but at the root of all this revenue potential is the fact that children are the target audience. At stake, is the future of adolescent brain development, health, and privacy.

Brain development

There’s already a growing sense of fear and hesitation around the amount of time children spend looking at screens. The connected toy should not abuse this already concerning trend, but capitalize on the value it provides. Given that screens aren’t going away in the foreseeable future, that time can and should be used for encouraging education and imagination. Options like Lightbot demonstrate that not all screen time is wasted. Lightbot introduces children to the concept of computer programming through fun interactive puzzles.

The connected toy starts to show it’s true potential when it augments the physical toys that children are already accustomed to. Connected toys such as Construkts and Codie demonstrate the power of not only augmenting, but completely redefining how children interact and learn from playing. Codie teaches children how to code through a simple interface and a mini-roomba, whereas Construkts uses actual building blocks tied to an app to strengthen children’s cognitive and spatial skills. Both options blend digital and tangible elements to provide an interactive and fun learning experience for children.

Health and activity

As a direct response to the aforementioned fear of screen time, multiple offerings are proving that technology doesn’t always lead to sedentary behavior. Lumo’s Interactive Projector turns the floor of your child’s play area into an interactive game that encourages running, jumping and all sorts of physical activities.

Then there’s the Virtuix Omni, which, while predominantly aimed at the gaming market, could easily be repurposed into an interactive Viewfinder. Rather than staring at a screen or reading a book about a museum, a child could jump on the Omni and take a virtual walking tour of everywhere from the Louvre to Yellowstone Park.

However, if your aim is to get your children to actually enjoy the great outdoors, there are a slew of connected sporting equipment entering the market that will get them off the couch and sprinting to the nearest basketball court, soccer pitch or baseball diamond. The 94Fifty basketball, for example, is filled with sensors that monitor and send detailed reports of your child’s dribbling and shooting skills to your smartphone or tablet. Pretty soon, every sport will have connected equipment that encourages physical activity and self improvement.

Safety and privacy

Safety and privacy surrounding the connected toy will warrant significant effort from manufacturers and parents alike. We’ve already seen nanny cams get hacked, so it’s completely within reason to imagine a scenario where a toy is compromised to provide some lively commentary (or worse) to its young audience.

Toy manufacturers must realize that safety in a connected world goes well beyond choking hazards. Privacy concerns are already being addressed, as evident in a recent panel held by Underwriters Laboratories (UL) in September of 2014, but there’s still work to be done. If one of these connected devices leads to a serious privacy infringement, we may soon see parents having to opt in/out of toy features and functionalities. That kind of takes the fun out of things, for all parties involved.

If all goes well

The world of connected toys should be a seamless integration of the IoT, not an influx of black screens and lethargy. The connected toy will hopefully capitalize on its strengths – the (secure) access to information and the ability to adapt to and promote activity and education for children in their formative years. It’s about augmenting the already happy experience a child associates with toys.

Personally, I’m looking forward to the day when two Watson-powered Barbies go head-to-head over the meaning of life or the application of quantum physics. I envision pure comedy, or we end up solving mankind’s most perplexing questions. Only the future will tell what the Internet of Toys has in store.

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