At Toy Fair, Kids' Play Gets Wired

By Scott Moore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 20, 2008

NEW YORK -- Fact: Kids create more than 100,000 avatars each day in virtual communities such as Habbo and Club Penguin.

That startling statistic has broad implications for how kids play and what the $22 billion toy industry wants to sell them to play with. More and more, when kids "go outside to play," they're really venturing forth into increasingly sophisticated online neighborhoods, and manufacturers want a piece of that action.

At the annual Toy Fair celebration of innovation and inspiration that wraps up here today, even many of the classic toys and time-honored storylines had a whiz-bang, Internet-based interactivity. The latest Hot Wheels, once guided by hand by kids on their knees making vroom-vroom noises, now have chips that connect directly to the community. Disney is expanding its Fairies franchise to an online Pixie Hollow, where girls can give each other eBracelets and hunt for Tinker Bell.

About a dozen companies are trying to follow in the footsteps of Webkinz, which has successfully sold stuffed animals that give kids a link to a virtual world with adventures, arcade games and instant messaging. In reverse, there is finally a line of cuddly plush Neopets that have hopped out of the monitor and can receive real hugs, rather than only webby ones.

Want a different virtual identity? There are games featuring cars, aliens, strong boys, frilly girls. All have safety features, such as blocking home addresses and ages, that manufacturers hope will assuage parents' fears about letting their kids go online. And there certainly are no toxins, small magnets or lead-based paints in the virtual toy world, a plus for an industry that was besieged last year by 17 product recalls covering more than 20 million items.

For the industry, which uses this four-day play date to hawk its current and upcoming products, here's the best-case scenario: Kids won't want to stop playing in their online worlds. With the ever-expanding child obesity problem, that also is the worst-case scenario.

IToy's ME2 (pronounced "me too," it stands for "my electronic double") grew out of a doctor's suggestion that George Irwin wear a pedometer to monitor how much exercise he was getting.

Using a pedometer, ME2 keeps track of a kid's daily steps and transfers points to an avatar's power levels. Ride your bike; earn points to buy a virtual vehicle.

"To develop this, we didn't talk to anyone over 25," said Irwin, the company's "toycoon," pointing to the game's Wii-like controller and 360-degree, 3-D animation interface. "The best research we got was from 9-, 10-, 11-, 12- and 13-year-old kids."

His brother Peter, a co-owner, has three boys ages 7 to 14 who will "sit and stare at a screen for five hours in a row. I have to drag them away from the computer. . . . We thought, if we could find a way to create a toy that would encourage kids to find an activity, even if that activity is walking, that would be great."

The ME2 is designed to be the enforcer. Want to play longer or buy online accessories? Then take a break from the virtual 3-D world. A 15-minute bike ride or 10 minutes cleaning your room will provide double benefit.

Tom and Michelle Gallop of Boulder, Colo., came up with another way to get their three children away from the screen.

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