The future of smart toys and the battle for digital children

The future of smart toys and the battle for digital children

Intelligent digital children's toys are also facing competition, there are more and more children's toys.New gadgets are launched every day in San Francisco, but this personal assistant has a twist: it is the first intended purely for children.

Annual smart-toy sales worldwide are expected to grow from about $2.8bn in 2015 to $11.3bn by 2020, according to UK-based analyst firms Juniper Research. Digital toys and internet-connected devices for children, such as Smarty, are a rapidly growing part of that, along with intelligent building blocks, smart racing cars and drones, robots that teach kids how to code, and even a smart rubber duck aimed at the very young. There is now a $200 trainable robot dog called Chip on the market, a $200 SuperSuit for laser tag that will begin seeking crowdfunding later this month, and ROXs, a $129 system to entice kids to run around the back garden that will launch soon.

“The best way to describe it is Amazon Echo for kids,” explains Sparks, the co-founder of Siliconic Home. Addressing the audience at a recent conference in San Francisco on digital technology for children, she said Smarty is designed for kids aged between five and 12. It will answer their questions, remind them when homework assignments are due, wake them in the morning, control their bedroom lighting, and stream music and audio books. Parents can monitor the child’s activity through a web-accessible dashboard. “It is something a child can use from the moment they wake up to the moment they go to bed,” Sparks says.

“The industry is getting away from just the screen,” says Tonda Bunge Sellers, who organises the Digital Kids event. “The app is going to the background and the toy is where you interact.” Smart toys are gaining in popularity, partly because of a concern about kids spending too much time looking at screens, she says. “The physical is making it make more sense to the parent,” Bunge Sellers says.“Last year the connected toy was an outlier, this year it is a trend, and by next year syncing your phone or tablet to a toy will be as common as putting double-A batteries in,” says Warren Buckleitner, editor of the Children’s Technology Review website. He welcomes the crossover between toys and screens, saying that when the technology becomes less visible, play comes to the fore. “We can begin talking about the quality of play and child development and not just whether screens are good or bad,” he says.

But while physical toys certainly have appeal, swapping screens for connected toys doesn’t necessarily mean better experiences for children. Stuart Brown, an expert on play and founder of the not-for-profit National Institute for Play based in Carmel Valley, California, says that kids need real, authentic play – activity done for no purpose other than its own sake and where the outcome is secondary to the experience.

The National Institute for Play’s director of development, Kristen Cozad, likes the concept of Smarty. Programmed to provide what is asked of it, “the experiences are driven by the child, not the toy”. But others worry about a machine interposing between parent and child.