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MAN'S DIGITAL BEST FRIEND; ELECTRONIC DOG LEADS PARADE OF HIGH-TECH TOYS.

Byline: David Bloom Staff Writer

With a ``woof'' and a wiggle of its tail, AIBO stretches and walks slowly forward, kicking a pink ball in front of it.

Man's best friend? No.

Sony's most amazing robot? Yes.

AIBO - or the ERS-110 to the code-name oriented - is the Japanese conglomerate's latest attempt to create a new kind of electronic diversion, in this case home entertainment robots.

It's one of the most striking new kinds of tech toys available as toymakers and computer companies merge their skills to create new kinds of devices used to entertain us.

Given the prices of many of these high-tech gizmos (the AIBO sells for $2,500 and is only available through Sony's Web site at www.world.sony.com/robot), they're at least as likely to attract adult hobbyists as owners.

But there's no doubt there's a market out there for this stuff. The AIBO sold out its entire initial production run just 20 minutes after it went on sale June 1 on the Internet.

And some companies are anticipating - even encouraging - some of the demand from grown-ups. Last winter, when Lego rolled out its programmable robot building block system, Lego Mindstorms, the company created a Web site (www.legomindstorms.com) where adults can swap computer codes and machine designs.

The basic Mindstorms Robotics Invention System sold out during the holidays, with nearly half the purchasers adult hobbyists, according to Lego. The basic system was designed in collaboration with the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Mindstorms, despite a steep price tag (about $200 for a 778-piece starter set), have mostly inspired only one complaint: There weren't enough varieties of machines that could be made with the basic set.

So the company also has been busily spinning off expansion sets of various themes and machine types to inspire further creativity.

One new add-on set is designed to teach children as young as 9 about robotics and doesn't require a PC for the programming. Another expansion set allows makers to create a variety of ``Star Wars'' 'droids. The company is also adding a ``RoboCam'' and remote-control accessory packs.

In some cases, existing smart toys - and their inventors - are merely getting smarter. Last Christmas' biggest hit, the Furby, is a good example.

The pint-sized digital furballs are stuffed with sensors and an infrared light source that allow them to notice when a person or another Furby are in the room, and to ``communicate'' with them, initially in a nonsense language called Furbish. Over time, Furbies ``learn'' English from their owners and develop a substantial vocabulary.

But the racket the Furbies put up talking to each other and to their owners got to be too much for many parents, and even some children. It was particularly annoying when the Furbies were put to ``sleep'' for the night, because they would easily awaken and being chattering again.

Eventually, the Furbies in many households were just switched off, along with the interactivity that made them different.

But the new Furby Babies being released in August should deal with some of that annoyance by adding a ``deep sleep'' mode, said Tiger Electronics' spokesman Paul Christou.

``Once it falls asleep, it stays asleep, unless you turn it all the way upside down,'' Christou said. The Furby Babies also will have a higher-pitched voice and will learn English faster than their larger, noisier, first-generation forebears.

And though there will be no separate technology that makes it obvious the babies are more developed than the originals, if you put a regular Furby across from a Furby Baby, the adult will learn English more quickly as well, Christou said.

The company already has begun selling regular Furbies with new kinds of fur. The Furby Babies should hit store shelves Aug. 1.

Other companies are using relatively straightforward technology in interesting ways.

Neurosmith's Music Blocks use memory cartridges and five special colored blocks inserted into a large box to key in chunks of music and instrumentation, allowing even a very young child to ``compose'' and manipulate sounds in delightful ways.

The Cyber Cartridges will in turn contain a variety of musical styles that can be purchased and downloaded through the Internet to give a child a broader array of compositional choices.

And eventually the company plans to use the Cyber Cartridges as the basis for a wide array of programmable, modifiable toys that Neurosmith expects to debut in coming months, including a foreign-language teacher, company officials said. And the Long Beach company is beginning to distribute additional memory cartridges through the Web, a boon for busy parents.

Zowie Intertainment has created two play sets that use look-no-hands technology embedded in small plastic figurines and related toys to trigger a graphic adventure on the computer screen, all without a mouse or keyboard.

Move the pirate across the toy ship, and a character on screen does the same, sword-fighting the whole way. They weren't explaining how they managed to do this, and it wasn't obvious to even my questing eye. Suffice it to say, however, that kids won't care while they're playing with these sets.

The world's biggest toy and computer chip makers - Mattel and Intel - have combined recently to make the QX3 computer microscope, which lets children create slides for the microscope, then send the picture to their computer screen for viewing and analysis, report-making and more.

Given that it's Intel in this partnership, don't expect to see a Mac version anytime soon of this product, which is a shame, given the many schools with large numbers of Macintosh computers.

Mattel also has partnered with cable network Nickelodeon to create the Nick Click, a cheap digital camera similar to one of my favorite toys of last year - the Barbie Photo Designer Digital Camera.

The award-winning Barbie camera was combined with a CD-ROM of Barbie-themed computer material, including ``frames'' for photos, creative resources and more.

The Barbie camera can take six shots while unconnected to the computer, and an unlimited amount while hooked up. The girls I tested the Barbie camera with loved it. The Nick Click should be another hit, precisely because it gives kids a simple, cheap tool with which to be very creative in their own ways. Intel also has created its own version of a digital camera for kids, the Me2 Cam.

Speaking of making computer life easy, KB Gear Interactive is coming out with a variety of computer toys/peripherals that make the adventure of learning to use a computer much simpler for small children, including a couple of durable digital cameras, kid-friendly colorful keyboards and digital drawing tablets.

KB Gear's SketchBoard Studio is a nifty 7-by-5-inch digitizing tablet in a sturdy case designed to help kids learn drawing and animation on the computer. It will come packaged with Disney Interactive's Magic Artist 2 software to help.

KB also is beginning to sell the JamCam, a digital camera in a rugged yellow-and-black rubber exterior. Two special child-friendly, colorful keyboards are also coming from the company.

Even more interesting, however are the products from Comfy Interactive Movies, an Israeli company whose Comfy Keyboard products fit over a regular computer keyboard and allow very young children to perform a wide array of computer tasks without totally trashing your machine.

The keyboards work with software to give a child an interactive experience while presenting a more manageable keyboard, complete with a ``phone,'' color and time keys and a few other choices.

CAPTION(S):

2 Photos

Photo: (1--Cover--Color) The electronic games people play

Computerized gizmos taking a big bite of toy sales.

(2) Lego's Mindstorms system includes this scanner. The futuristic building block toys have been particularly popular among adults.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 7, 1999
Words:1274
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