Toys in a world of their own
The International Toy Fair, touted as the largest toy trade show in the Western Hemisphere, is a children's paradise without a child in sight.
I'm surrounded by fresh-faced, blinking baby dolls that burp and cry and coo, grinning plush raccoons squatting beneath palm-frond arcs, fluffy pink pigs that scoot across tables, oinking cheerfully. It's a world of toys that seem so busy with each other, they hardly notice the absence of real, live kids.
These are the gadgets and gizmos to be released in the coming months "launched," in the jargon of sellers, which shows you how serious, how high-tech the toy world has become. The floor is filled with buyers, searching for next Christmas's hit or surefire distractions for sweaty children on hot summer days.
The buzzword for toys these days is "interactivity," which seems to involve some combination of animals' high-pitched speech, heroic men's deep grumbles, dolls' optimistic chatter, and songs that range from melodic warble to frantic whir.
"Certainly toys have always been interactive," says Chuck Scothon, senior vice president of marketing for Fisher-Price. But "technology over the last five to seven years has become more a part of everyday basics. It enhances what we like to call the 'magic.' "
The odd thing is, much of this "magic" invites children to play with objects rather than with one another. Worse, it blurs into toys interacting with themselves: Take Sing 'n Snore Pooh, who sings himself to sleep and slips into a gentle snore. Though Pooh's high-pitched, goofy voice is oddly soothing, his soft sighs make him more a haunting reminder of a nap companion's absence than a reassuring substitute as does his lament: "Napping is friendlier with two."
There is something weird about endless rows of beribboned dolls staring impassively at packs of adults who pass them by. They inhabit their own world of myriad personalities: talkative dolls with the trendiest clothes; outdoorsy, athletic Get-Real Girls with self-esteem that's off the charts; a hippie Barbie in sparkly denim who lolls in her butterfly chair.
Increasingly, the toys themselves have toys, as if these talking figurines demand some "interactivity" of their own. Barbie owns a new VW van, a SlimShot digital camera, and a secret magnifying lens. Lionel trains have tiny kercheifed bandits running through their cars.
As buyers marvel at high-tech motion and pithy, automated phrases, there's little talk of the extent to which yapping, frantic gizmos deprive children of the opportunity to create their own fantasies. Mr. Scothon acknowledges the danger of "watch me" toys, and says the challenge is to find a middle ground where technology draws children in without becoming bossy. That's why toys like Mattel's Rescue Heroes construction workers, police, pilots, and, this year, a New York firefighter offer simple declarations such as "Danger! Workers in danger!", inviting children to finish the drama.
Still, genuine high-tech interactivity is enough to lure the most jaded buyer: the Neurosmith Musini is a small UFO-like object that sits on the floor, senses vibration, and transforms nearby movement into music, according to the child's strength and speed.
Its loud, rhythmic feedback gets sedate grown-ups stomping, and Neurosmith CEO Todd Coyle leaping on hardwood floors and loosening his blue tie in a goofy, gangly dance.
Some of the most interactive toys, though, needn't boast of it: These include new board games such as The Poll Game and Sixth Sense, where you get ahead by guessing other players' experiences and viewpoints; Wild Planet's Spy Secret Messenger, which launches messages written with invisible ink and sends the scraps like rockets through the air; and the Mystery Message kit, which shreds "evidence" of notes.
And some of the most inventive toys work on the oldest models: Oklahoma-based brothers David and Robert Carr have crafted an "xstream glider" with elbow-like wings, leaving air pockets to capture wasted energy and maximize thrust and lift a model on which they plan to build a $10 billion jumbo jet. They stand behind a massive model and happily show their wares, thrusting planes forward but stopping just short of flight, which would breach Toy Fair rules.
Down the aisle, at Lionel Trains, Mike Newcomer becomes a celebrity. A volunteer who's wearing overalls and a conductor's hat, he's a rare and buoyant sight at Toy Fair the exhibit's closest thing to a gleeful child lost in the chugging, whistling menagerie of toys.
"A lot of people congratulate me on how good I look with my engineer's outfit," he says proudly, patrolling his tracks and admiring small clouds of steam that puff from the black locomotive. "They're my babies," he says of the trains, "and I enjoy them."
But seeing his joy as he tells about trains that fill his basement, I realize that the Toy Fair, for all its fun and frolic, needs more zest like his: a few boys careening through the aisles in one of Berchet's toddler-sized Porsches, or a group of girls loud and assertive enough to talk above the chatter of their dolls.
These toys, on their own, seem a self-sufficient world, but somehow it isn't enough.