Furby, aliens and jigsaws: Top toys get techy for Christmas

By Dave Lee
Technology reporter, BBC News

Furby held by a child
Image caption,
Nineties Christmas sensation Furby has had a hi-tech makeover - and he's not the only one

Ever since some bright spark decided that tethering a cup to a ball with a bit of string would be a fun idea, toymakers have always sought to use the latest technology to ignite children's imaginations.

As Christmas fast approaches, the lists of little girls and boys the world over are expected to be dominated by techy toys - including the return of some familiar favourites.

It was 1998 when the world first met Furby.

Cute, talkative little creatures, the Furby range featured a revolutionary feature: infrared eyes which meant the toys could communicate with each other.

It could also "listen" to conversations, and would, with a little pat-on-the-head encouragement, be taught to say a selection of words.

At the time, Furby was considered so advanced, that the US government banned the toys from its National Security Agency offices - lest it repeat top secret information to unofficial ears.

Thankfully, there were no confirmed reports of intelligence leaks, and years later, the Furby is making a comeback.

This time, its infrared eyes have been replaced with two small LCD screens, its body has more motors and sensors than before and - here's the clever bit - the Furby of 2012 comes with its own smartphone and tablet app, allowing for a much more interactive experience.

The app will even translate Furby's warblings into English.

"We've reinvented Furby with advanced technology that brings a whole new way to play to kids," the company gushed.

"The personality of each Furby appears to evolve by the way children play with it, and every unpredictable action and reaction helps make each Furby seem unique."

'Wow factor'

But Furby certainly isn't the only toy to be making use of mobile apps to enhance the play experience, says John Baulch, publisher of Toy World magazine.

"The best of these app toys, they really do significantly enhance the play value of what you get out of it," he says.

"It adds a real wow factor to toys. It's what kids really want these days."

"Toys have always harnessed new technology - because kids are getting more technologically savvy and literate."

Among the most exciting, he says, is Wowwee - a Hong Kong-based firm specialising in robotic toys and other hi-tech playthings.

Image caption,
Ravensburger's jigsaws now have an added final touch

Top of their success list is App Gear, a range of games which use augmented reality to create stunning interactive levels out of real places. Using either a smartphone or tablet, players end up shooting aliens around their living room, or fighting off a zombie apocalypse - all apparently standard activities for any modern day playtime.

"The entire App Gear range is based on toys that have got this kind of app angle to them," explains Mr Baulch.

"Creating apps and products to work together perfectly."

Even toys you may consider to be traditional are getting the augmented reality treatment.

German company Ravensburger has been making both adult and children's games since 1884, specialising in intricately made jigsaw puzzles.

The company's more recent innovative successes include 3D puzzles, but when it came to competing with the popularity of virtual games, they encountered a problem, as company marketing manager Benn Bramwell explains.

"The jigsaw puzzle is very difficult to recreate on a computer."

"You can obviously try it with other puzzles - but there's something about it that doesn't come across as well as doing it in person."

The company's digital division took on the task of reinventing a game that had remained largely untouched since it was first conceived.

In the company's new augmented reality range, a completed puzzle comes to life. Placing the last piece on the Underwater Realm puzzle, for instance, means the puzzle can be brought to life through another use of augmented reality.

Toddler tablet fans

With app-powered toys becoming something of a must-have gift this Christmas, parents protective of their expensive, sticky fruit juice-free tablets may have cause for concern.

Risks of soiling aside, parents also harbour worries over the safety of leaving children to enjoy playtime with a fully internet-enabled device.

Which is where the booming children's tablet market comes in.

Image caption,
Wowwee's App Gear products make virtual alien battlegrounds of living rooms

"We designed it so I could regain my tablet back," jokes Tracey Devine, marketing director for InspirationWorks, makers of Kurio, a children's tablet.

"Whether you agree with it or not, we know that two-year-olds are playing with tablets. What we've tried to develop is something specifically for them that's safe."

It's becoming a crowded market. Children's tablets - which like normal tablets have apps and web browsing - are springing up in toy shops the world over. Efforts from kid tech veterans VTech and Leapfrog have all earned strong reviews from technology pundits.

The scene is becoming so competitive, children's tablets even have their own patent battle dispute - with manufacturer Fuhu is suing retailer Toys R Us for allegedly copying its ideas.

Scuffles aside, those in the toy trade believe tablets are going to be huge - not only this Christmas, but for many more to come.

Ice Cream Sandwich

Beneath the usually rubber-padded surface, children's tablets are remarkably similar to today's normal tablets.

The Kurio, for instance, runs the Ice Cream Sandwich version of Google's Android operating system - that's the same as the top-end models from the likes of Samsung.

But of course, there are alterations. Parents can set the tablet to disable the internet, or a programme in a white list of accepted sites, or a black list of unacceptable ones.

Image caption,
The Kurio runs on Android, but with a few child-friendly enhancements

There are suggest presets for certain ages. For under 12s, it removes social networks (with the exception of child-friendly sites like Moshi Monsters and Club Penguin).

To prevent sneaky, under the covers sessions on Angry Birds - the tablet can be set to switch off automatically after a child's bedtime.

In the new year, the Kurio tablet - like its competitors - will be expanded with a whole range of add-on accessories and dedicated apps.

It's all adds up to being an exciting time for both children and toymakers, says Toy World's Mr Baulch.

"Tablets should do astonishingly well this Christmas," he says.

"Where they get the sweet spot right, they produce something that takes toys to the next level."