Now it's the technically modified Teletubby
Saturday 06 February 1999
A massive toy fair in New York which begins this weekend will see the unveiling of Teletubbies with built-in processors. When a child squeezes them, they will giggle or say up to 20 different phrases. Meanwhile, screens in their bellies can show games or puzzles.
The new Teletubbies are the result of a joint project between Microsoft, the software giant, and Itsy Bitsy Entertainment, the US distributor for the toys. "Children will come to consider them their first technological friend," said Itsy Bitsy boss Kenn Viselman.
But such "technological friends" are increasingly common. As the price of computer chips has plummeted in the past two decades, it has become possible to incorporate them even into toys for the mass market which might only be in fashion for a year or so. Last year saw the Furby, a chip-controlled doll which mewed and giggled. A couple of years ago there was Buzz Lightyear, whose chip-generated voice announced that he was heading "To infinity - and beyond!"
The most noticeable chip-controlled toy has been Barney, produced by Microsoft's ActiMates division. The purple dinosaur can be programmed to react to the TV, a computer and even sites on the Internet. But the Teletubbies will be for a newer generation who will almost be surprised if there isn't a chip in their toy.
Yet this will not create a nation of computer maniacs. Psychologists reckon that such toys can be positive for children, because they encourage communication.
"Children do a lot of pretend playing, which is very important in early childhood," said Jennifer Smith, a former psychology lecturer at Middlesex University who specialists in early learning. "Even with a toy that doesn't speak, you'll see a child pretend that their teddy bear is talking back to them, holding imaginary conversations."
With toys which do react to the child, "they take the idea on board very rapidly," Dr Smith said. "But they also soon realise that there is a limited range of interaction, that some phrase has come up before. Eventually, that toy will go to the place where all the others do."
The pressure to go electronic is also affecting traditional toys. Lego, the Danish company best known for its toy bricks, announced last month that it was cutting a tenth of its 10,000 workforce worldwide, as the huge growth in computer games has put pressure on sales of plastic bricks that don't do anything if left on their own. To today's child, that can seem a tad dull.
To counter that, the company last summer launched its Mindstorms "programmable bricks" aimed at children aged over 12. Designed with the help of professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the bricks could be programmed from a computer. Lego intends to follow that up with programmable bricks that do not need a computer: they will store their own list of activities. "I think we will see chips built in to more and more toys," said a spokesman for Lego UK.
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