Bots for Tots

Don't let your kid be the last on the block to be assimilated.

One day, robots will teach our children, rendering school obsolete. Until that day arrives, however, parents around the world have an obligation to prepare their kids for the onslaught of fully automated, personalized education systems. And that's where interactive toys come in. By surrounding little Billy and Susie with lifelike animatronic playmates today, you can ensure their preparedness for a future even Isaac Asimov couldn't have imagined. Interactive toys are becoming more sophisticated every year, to be sure, but 2002 may bring the most astonishing gift-giving season yet for techies and their preschool-aged tykes. Just call it a Very Kasey Kristmas.

Kasey the Kinderbot, a 14-inch robot with an unnerving cheerful streak and a small LED screen embedded in his stomach, stands—and dances and sings—at the forefront of a growing trend in toys: interactive systems intended to put a friendly face on the unpleasant task of learning. Major toy retailers, including FAO Schwarz (1420 Fifth Ave., 206-442-9500, www.fao.com), expect Kasey to dominate this season's buying blitz, due in part to the breadth of his teaching skills. The Kinderbot, available online for as little as $60 (or at FAO Schwarz for $100), "teaches 40+ learning skills" and is designed for kids 3 to 7 years old. Kasey-taught concepts include spelling, counting, and basic identification skills (is that a rabbit or a cup of tea?).

Kasey also has an etiquette agenda. According to Fisher-Price.com, the bot includes programs intended to teach "manners and taking turns." In fact, the potential uses for Kasey's didactic enthusiasm are virtually unlimited; one can only imagine the various propaganda programs that could turn Kasey into a raging neo-Marxist or a fundamentalist preacher. For the moment, however, additional software cartridges for Kasey are relatively apolitical. The cartridges cost $16.99 apiece and cover, among other subjects, beginning Spanish and French, basic marine biology, and natural disasters ("From raging storms to fierce floods, the world of weather is full of fascinating facts").

THOUGH NOT BILLED as an educational toy, the R2-D2 Interactive Astromech Droid (available at www.amazon.com for $99.99) is a high-end piece of Star Wars memorabilia with "the same charisma and charm that we have come to know in R2-D2." Whether this miniature R2-D2 (comparable in size to Kasey) is truly as charismatic and charming as the ad copy suggests is up for debate. R2's features, on the other hand, are irrefutably cool: speech recognition, sonar navigation, location sensors, and the ability to perform "sentry duty"—that is, the power to act as a pint-sized robotic watchdog. While this product might not appeal to young children, the self-proclaimed Jedi knights of the world, lonely and shunned by their peers, would surely appreciate having an intelligent, sensitive Star Wars-themed companion to talk to.

If you find yourself strapped for cash, but you still want the children in your life to be speaking foreign languages before the age of 5, consider Spanish Baby Tad, an especially worldly member of the Baby Tad line of interactive frog dolls. While some product reviews at Amazon.com were less than favorable ("It has an annoying high-pitched voice and it is difficult for me to understand . . . "), Tad is a pretty good value at the comparatively low price of $24.99. His vocabulary may be limited to shapes and colors, and his appearance may be less flashy than that of Kasey or R2-D2, but make no mistake: Tad's foremost concern is your children's education, and he rewards their responses with the same kind of unflagging musical enthusiasm Kasey and R2 deliver for up to $75 more.

THE APPARENT intelligence of an upscale toy like Kasey can mask its drawbacks. At FAO Schwarz, irritated employees ended up switching off the demo model to avoid hearing Kasey's loud, chirpy "hello!" every time his motion sensors detected their movement. Apparently customers were also finding his endless greetings annoying, even somewhat frightening. Nonetheless, Kasey does offer kids (and parents) an unprecedented variety of activities, which means incredible "replay value," a feature many of his robotic rivals simply cannot match. Just don't be surprised if, after leaving Billy and Susie alone with Kasey for a bit longer than usual one weekend afternoon, you find them having tea with officials from the Spanish embassy, correctly pronouncing words like amniocentesis, and doing the hokey pokey. You may have some catching up to do.

nschindler@seattleweekly.com

 
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