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Play With Your Career

Opportunities in the Interactive Toy Industry

By John Griffiths

If you're a toy designer and your inventions begin talking to you, it may be a sign that you need a good night's sleep and perhaps a few days of vacation. But when you start to see these same toys moving around and communicating between themselves with chirping beeps and blips of light...well. To a new breed of toy designers, however, this potentially psychotic experience is the desired paradigm, for they are developing the next generation of computer-enhanced toys—toys that are a far cry from the dolls with pull strings and electronic football games of the past.

"We're trying to bring together the computational and the physical world in order to provide children with a richer learning experience while they play," asserts Mitchell Resnick, associate professor of media at MIT, and a member of the MIT Media Laboratory's Toys of Tomorrow project.

The project is being undertaken with the cooperation of several toy companies, including Lego. Lego's contribution includes a soon-to-be released toy set entitled Lego Mindstorms, a robotic transmogrification of the traditional Lego toys that will, among other things, allow children to create their own mechanical menagerie. "We've been testing a system in which kids research an animal in the library, then create and program a Lego model that mimics the creature's behavior," says Fred Martin, a research scientist at the Media Lab. The finished products sport flashing fiber optic strands, snapping claws, pincers and wagging tails.

"We have over 40 years experience understanding how kids play, and we design our interactive products around that research," says Mary Ann Norris, director of strategic development for Mattel, another partner in the Toys of Tomorrow project. Norris reports that Mattel has had a lot of success with their interactive, CD-ROM-enhanced Barbie titles, especially Barbie Fashion Designer, one of the top selling PC toys to date.


Norris notes that computer-enhanced toys may be a useful tool in the assimilation and acceptance of the concept of ubiquitous computing. "People often talk about a ubiquitous home computer systems controlling objects such as a refrigerator or a toaster," notes Norris. But, she points out, these objects are purchased very infrequently, while families are constantly buying toys. "This cycle of products coming into the home will provide a good platform for ubiquitous computing," she asserts.

Resnick concurs with Norris on several points. He, too, has noticed that a growing number of computer and semiconductor manufacturers are realizing that computerized toys can be an important market for them. As well, Resnick predicts that computerized toys could become a pathway for a larger computer presence in our lives. "In the future, computers won't just be these boxes that sit on desks, but will be spread throughout all the objects around us," he states.

For these reasons Norris is optimistic about the future of the computerized toy industry—a sentiment that should have engineering and computer students bullish as well. "Over the next five-to-10 years our industry is going to be deluged by interactive playthings," Norris opines, and notes that this will translate into a great demand for software engineers familiar with embedded technologies.

All this comes as no surprise to Christine Winkel, a product manager at Microsoft. In 1997, Microsoft launched Actimates, a line of computer-enhanced toys that includes the popular Interactive Barney, a toy that Winkel claims "created the new interactive toy category."


In order for computerized toys to evolve, though, many technological innovations had to be developed. Winkel credits advances in RF technology that allow two-way digital data exchange between a PC and an interactive toy. And all of the experts cited the trend in the electronics and computer industry of components becoming smaller and cheaper over time. Norris mentions Moore's Law (that microprocessors will become faster and cheaper every six months) when she reports that the technology used in today's relatively inexpensive interactive toys was just a few years ago available only in $10,000 computers.

And as with most technological fields nowadays, the trend is always to look to the future. "The next big thing is network toys," states Martin, "and coming up with methods to allow toys to communicate with each other and react to other objects in the room." Resnick provides an example in his vision of a Lego house whose garage door will open when a child drives a Lego car up to it.

Luckily, the growth of the interactive toy industry is going to provide a lot of jobs for technical students (see table below), a fact that Norris says makes up for all the raised eyebrows she got from family and friends when she was in college. "They couldn't conceive that the skills I was gaining [at the MIT Media Lab] would be in any way useful," she recalls, and admits that she herself didn't always have a definitive answer for them. "I just knew that this was really cool stuff and I was passionate about it," she concludes. "I figured something interesting would come out of it."


Microsoft reports that an incredible diversity of engineering disciplines were involved in the design of Barney and his support peripherals. The following is a compendium of those disciplines:

  • Electrical Engineering: Design of microcontroller, ROM interface, power supply, motor drive, radio communication systems, PC interface and video decoding. Design of the firmware for system control, power management, wireless communication, voice synthesis, servo motor control, PC communication and video data decoding. Designs were optimized for high performance at the lowest cost possible. Test and verification of electromagnetic conformance (EMI, ESD).
  • Mechanical Engineering: Design of the plastic housings, gear boxes, switches, cable assemblies and plush patterns. Designs required analysis and test to ensure world-class reliability, durability and quality.
  • Industrial Engineering: Innovative and creative design of appearance and functional usability.
  • Software Engineering: Development of setup/install programs, drivers and multimedia software for interactive CD. Development of tools for in-house content development such as speech processing and motion scripting.
  • Reliability Engineering: Verification of reliability and durability of the final product through environmental testing, life testing, shock/vibration testing and ESD testing.
  • Manufacturing Engineering: Pulled together manufacture of high-density electronic PCB assemblies, plastic electro-mechanical assemblies, plush assemblies, videocassette duplication and CD duplication resulting in very high manufacturing yield and very low defect rate. Design and development of test equipment for testing product on the manufacturing line.

toy engineering

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