Five holiday seasons ago, parents looking for something new in toys turned to tech—from the expensive but imaginative LEGO MindStorms robot construction set to the faddish and off-switch-deprived Furby (a.k.a. "the toy that would not shut up"). This year, though, the computer technology that once set apart "smart" and "multimedia" toys has become pervasive and largely invisible. Now the emphasis is no longer on whether a toy can double as a silicon-based life form but on whether the toy—tech or traditional—is fun.
I've played with dozens this year, and there are a number of innovative toys that will likely make kids (and parents) say "Wow," even if the toy isn't technically tech.
If there's a trend this season for preschoolers, it's music. Leading the pack is Neurosmith, a much-imitated maker of musical toys. Musini (Neurosmith, $59.99, ages 3 and up) is a bathroom-scale-sized toy that's placed on the floor and translates a child's movements, by sensing strength and speed of vibrations, into one of five musical styles, from classical to jazz. It works with adults, too, if they don't mind looking like a deranged Snoopy doing a happy dance.
Infants can try out Sesame Street Crawl Along Musical Garden (Fisher-Price, $19.99, ages 6 months and up), a musical mat that plays the "Sunny Days" theme song as baby crawls. It senses whether the tot has touched one of five painted-on stones that trigger sounds.
Innovation has even touched the classics: Little People Discovery Airport (Fisher-Price, $39.99, ages 11/2 and up) is a sprawling airport-themed play set. Not only does it feature the chunkier Little People introduced a few years ago (with arms!), the new Airport listens for the distinctive sounds that four vehicles (including an airplane and taxi) make when they're rolled. It then reacts with sound, speech, and light. It's remarkably engaging, though the hardest part of assembly is attaching nearly two dozen low-tech stickers.
Future shop-a-holics might appreciate Pretend & Learn Shopping Cart (LeapFrog, $45.99, ages 2 and up), a 2-foot-tall cart with a built-in hand scanner and 10 grocery items. The talking cart provides food facts and asks kids to shop for items by food group or mealtime theme.
Prefer a more anthropomorphic playmate? Kasey the Kinderbot (Fisher-Price, $64.99, ages 3 and up) promises to prepare preschoolers for kindergarten with counting, ABCs, games, and activities —and its interactive robot antics, with fluid movement, realistic speech, and a chest-mounted LCD screen, can be expanded through additional cartridges. For those who just want company, Maggie Raggies Sweetie Singer (Zapf Creation, $29.99, ages 2 and up) is a soft, 18-inch Raggedy Ann-type doll that opens its mouth and sings a melodic "la la la" tune more loudly the more tightly she's squeezed.
And Chicken Dance Elmo (Fisher-Price, $19.99, ages 11/2 and up) is this year's Elmo fashion—Elmo in a chicken suit, flapping his arms/wings, rolling his head, and singing a chicken song. Over and over. It's cute, but after a few weeks parents might secretly wish for a Chicken Dance Elmo Rotisserie.
Another holiday trend: remote- controlled everything, as R/C toys get faster and more capable. Land- Sea-RC (MGA, $69.99, ages 5 and up) converts on the fly from a speedy 4 x 4 into a propeller-driven boat. Air Rebound (Tyco, $49.99, ages 6 and up) is a three-wheeled vehicle with a huge, air-filled front tire for flipping and stunts. House pets, beware.
Heck, birds beware: Air Hogs Sky Patrol Helicopter (Spin Master Toys, $69.99, ages 8 and up) claims to be the first inexpensive remote-control helicopter. Piloted with a simple trigger remote and an on-board computer chip, it flies to heights of more than 50 feet. Flights are short—about two minutes—but recharging is quick.
For a more educational gift, the best- selling LeapPad for early learners has matured into the Quantum Pad (LeapFrog, $49.99, ages 8-11), featuring an electronic book cover into which specially designed books are inserted. An interactive pen activates spoken facts and activities. The basic package includes a sampler book that covers elements of third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade math, geography, history, science, and language arts; additional books are $15 each.
This also is a year of anniversaries: K'nex is 10, Trivial Pursuit and Care Bears are 20, Mr. Potato Head and Matchbox are 50, and the Steiff teddy bear is 100. So it should come as no surprise that He-Man and the Masters of the Universe are being reintroduced, on their 20th anniversary, with redesigned action figures and the Castle Grayskull Playset (Mattel, $49.99, ages 5 and up). It's not your childhood's play set. This three-level castle recognizes when action figures (sold separately, of course, for $8 each) are placed on two sensors and responds appropriately to He-Man ("What is thy bidding?") or Skeletor ("You are not welcome here!").
Nostalgia—and snow—buffs may also be drawn to the SnowBoogie BladeRunner or Skeleton (Wham-O, $24.99-$49.99, ages 8 and up) as hula-hoop popularizer Wham-O ventures into winter sports. Both sleds are sleek and stylish, and appear sturdy enough for adults. I found it a challenge to try them in Seattle at this time of year, but the Skeleton was tested at the 2002 Olympics.
Then there are the innovative stocking-stuffers that appeal to all ages. Audubon Birds (Wild Republic, $7, ages 3 and up) are hand-sized plush beanbag re-creations of wild birds such as the blue jay and American robin that, when pressed, let loose with authentic birdcalls recorded by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It's enough to delight any neighborhood cat.
Finally, no Harry Potter fan should be without a small sack of Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans (Cap Candy, $3.99, ages 3 and up), complete with jelly beans sporting the new, hopefully simulated flavors of spinach, dirt—and vomit. Innovation may be, after all, in the eye, or mouth, of the beholder.
Frank Catalano comes to toys from tech, having spent the past decade as a tech-industry analyst, consultant, and writer. He can be reached at www.catalanoconsulting.com.