Toys With Tech

A roundup of battery-draining holiday fun.

Holiday 2003 brings with it two strong but cognitively dissonant toy trends: more classic toys and more tech toys. Classics in the sense of retro toys pushing anniversaries and stacks of board games, the latter one of the faster-growing categories of the past year. And tech in the sense of, well, everything: An estimated two-thirds of all new toys have some element of Intel Inside, whether it's as simple as speech, lights, or motion, or more complex sensors and chips.

Since many cool toys might not show up on the ubiquitous "hot toy" lists issued by retailers and industry watchers, here's my list of how tech is blurring traditional lines in every category at every age, from tots to tweens.

EDUCATIONAL

Boldly going where LeapFrog has gone before, Fisher-Price has introduced its own interactive learning book toy, the PowerTouch Learning System (Fisher-Price, $49.99, ages 3-8). Like LeapFrog's LeapPad, PowerTouch features books for preschool to second grade that are placed inside a portable book "cover" and respond with spoken words, sounds, and games when a child touches the page. But unlike LeapPad, the touch isn't of a stylus but of the child's finger. PowerTouch also automatically detects the page a book is turned to and adjusts reading and other activities to match. Additional books are $15. Just keep the peanut butter and jelly out of reach.

Unless, of course, you want to ring up that PB&J. The Teaching Cash Register (Learning Resources, $44.95, ages 3 and up) is a sturdy, talking cash register that teaches math skills. The large LCD screen keeps tally as kids play counting games, use coupons and credit cards, and pay with coins and paper bills. No currency-trading knowledge required.

After a long day as a shop clerk, preschoolers can kick back and relax with Learning Screen Karaoke (LeapFrog, $29.99, ages 4 and up). This boom-box-shaped karaoke toy has more than 50 sing-along songs covering ABCs, numbers, and phonics. Just pick up the mike, watch the visual cues on the top display, and sing. Kids can even add voice- distorting effects and applause, all at the push of a button.

PLUSH

At the youngest end of the interactive plush toy scale is Pet Me Platypus (Neurosmith, $19.99 at Target only, all ages). The cute and cuddly duckbill is decked out with colorful buttons that trigger selections from "Boogie Woogie Bounce" and "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" to Verdi's "Rigoletto" and Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro." Great sound and a low-tech, high-touch rattle fill the bill.

Want something more animated? Get Up & Bounce Tigger (Fisher-Price, $29.99, ages 11/2 and up) starts by sitting, pushes himself up by his tail to sing and dance on two feet, then bounces up and down. It's amazing to watch.

More predictable are this year's Elmo models, Hokey Pokey Elmo (Fisher-Price, $29.99, ages 11/2 and up) and Limbo Elmo (Fisher-Price, $24.99, ages 11/2 and up). While I was ready to like the flip-flop outfitted Elmo doing the limbo, I was unprepared for how much I enjoyed Elmo performing the most annoying children's song of all time: He spins in a circle while doing the dance.

If Elmo's a bit too cute, cure that with Rude Tude Tazz (Mattel, $19.99, ages 4 and up), the Looney Tunes plush that, when you raise and lower the arm, plays "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" from the armpit with a flatulent tone that would make Pet Me Platypus blush.

Maggie Raggies and Her Frog Prince (Zapf Creation, $24.99, ages 3 and up) is a great example of "tech light"just enough tech to stimulate the imagination. The 14-inch-tall fabric doll princess holds a frog that, placed to her lips, makes a kissing sound. Kiss three times, a magical sound plays, and you turn the frog inside out to reveal a prince. It's a male transformation that rarely works this well in the real world.

TWEEN TECH

The most innovative remote-control toy of the year is Vectron Ultralite (Science Tech, $29.99-$39.99, ages 10 and up), a beanie-sized flying saucer that hovers and flies, indoors or out, via a handheld remote control. Sure, you can only really control up and down motion, but there's no tether or cords and it's hard to break. The infrared RC lets you bounce the signal off ceilings to frighten flying insects.

Younger, more grounded kids will enjoy the latest variation of fighting tops, Beyblade Remote Control Top with Launcher (Hasbro, $34.99, ages 8 and up). Launch the included top and then use the remote control to change its spin and direction from clockwise to counterclockwise and back.

If climbing the walls is more your thing, Climb@tron Wild Climbers (Action Products, $14.99, ages 6 and up) feature palm-sized, life-like Red-Eyed Tree Frog and Tarantula models that, thanks to suction cups, tiny bellows, and AA batteries, climb up and down windows and refrigerators.

Tunes more timely? HandBand (KGI, $79.99, ages 8 and up) is a pair of rechargeable, and musical, high-tech gloves. Select an instrument by pressing a buttonguitar, drums, or keyboardand when you bend a finger, sensors play a note that's wirelessly transmitted to a speaker you wear on your belt. It takes a bit of practice, but it sure sounds and looks cool, since each note also activates a color-changing LED light.

Finally, Thin-Tronix Poster Radio and Thin-Tronix Poster Phone (Tiger Electronics, $24.99 each, ages 8 and up) turn toys into wall art. The Poster Radio is a fully functional FM stereo; the Poster Phone is a working speakerphone with speed dial. Both are lightweight, battery operated, and an inch thick. And any toy that can make analog technology cool in an increasingly digital world has its circuits in the right place.

Frank Catalano comes to toys from tech, having spent the past decade as a tech industry analyst, consultant, and author. He can be reached via www.catalanoconsulting.com.

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