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Christmas toy technology

Predicting what will be the hit toy at Christmas is nearly impossible and identifying what technology will be in that toy is even more difficult explains E&T.

Imagine it's Christmas morning and the kids are tearing open their presents. Through the blizzard of shredded wrapper, one in particular catches your eye - a robot or flying toy, say, its box emblazoned with exhortations to amaze your friends and suchlike. "Hmm," you think, "I wouldn't mind having a go of that myself."

It's a refrain that must date at least from the advent of model train sets. Toy technology - particularly control - has long fascinated kids of all ages, and these days, as its cost falls in seemingly inverse proportion to its functionality, you can get a lot of it for your money. Also, as with model trains, say, some of the latest gizmos can form not only the basis of an abiding hobby but also the starting point for developing systems of your own.

Dr Mark Allen lectures in the field of toys and technology at Brunel University; he's also a member of the UK's the National Toy Council and sits on the board of the International Toy Researchers Association. As he explains, "What an engineer thinks of as a control system will be something you'll see more at the hobby end than in a ‘toy' as such. They are ‘play' objects designed to be built/adapted/repaired by the user, whereas toys tend to be used ‘as is' or in building something else."

Only one factor governs which control technology will be used in a product. "Cost is the whole issue here," Dr Allen says. "The technology has to be very cost-effective - that's the bottom line, rather than because it works well. Despite outward appearances, toys are a very serious business, and the technology is there simply because its cost has fallen so much in the past few years, while its sophistication has grown hugely."

Radio control is a "hot" technology at the moment, he says. "That's because it's all about giving a child that sense of magic - the ‘wow' factor. In lower-end toys, however, infrared tends to be favoured, because of its lower cost; it is line-of-sight though of course, which makes it more limited.

"RF is potentially more robust, but again at a cost. Depending on a toy's price point, it's becoming more widely used due to its significantly decreasing cost and size of standalone RF ICs."

The technology itself can come from pretty much anywhere, says Dr Allen. There's no standard kit, nor do manufacturers tend to invest in R&D because toys usually have a potential lifespan of only six months or so before being copied in some way, so instead they monitor industry in general to keep tabs on technology developments.

The bigger companies will back some technology with funding, however, while the smaller ones will use expert knowledge from an individual, say. That opens the door for inventors and developers, and here Dr Allen offers some pointers.

"It is indirectly the control technologist who determines what the next big thing is," he says. "Perhaps the most interesting aspect at the moment is the control interface - novel technology using more than just simple on/off buttons as input devices, and better understanding and deployment of haptic and visual devices."

The technology that does come through tends to be fairly innocuous, he says. "For example, I was at a meeting recently where a group of toy designers wondered what could be done here with lasers. Fortunately commonsense prevailed and the answer was nothing, of course, and this is a good example of people initially dreaming things up without any regard for the potentially catastrophic fall-out for any company that markets a toy with even the slightest potential for danger to children."

The products shown here give a flavour of the current state of the art; most are designed to be used "as is", as Dr Allen puts it, while some are aimed more at the hobby end. As for which technologies will win out in the future though, Dr Allen says, "No-one knows - that's the Holy Grail. If anyone could tell that they'd become very rich very quickly." So, still fancy a go?

The British Toy and Hobby Association has guidelines for inventors on its website, www.btha.co.uk.

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