New York toy fair's coolest toys range from drones to coding

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The Arrow Smart-Kart has a front sensor that automatically hits the brakes when there's an obstacle ahead.

As a child, the Gizmo Guy coveted a Tom Thumb typewriter, Mickey Mouse record player, and View-Master film projector. Also, mechanized gags (chattering teeth, joy buzzers), as advertised in Archie comics. And look what trouble that got him into!

Last weekend, this eternal “kid” found more cool playthings on his annual trek to the North American International Toy Fair, which ended Tuesday in New York. Toy tinkerers are “dumbing  down” grown-up gadgets, and stoking such concepts as augmented reality (AR), drones, and computer coding. (We stumbled on Forum Novelties, selling whoopee cushions and an impolite "Flipping the Bird" machine.)

Think augmented, not alternate, reality. Are you into Nintendo's Pokemon Go and Ambiio, Activision's Skylanders, and Disney Infinity play sets? Coming soon are a mess of other “connected play” toys that “bridge the gap between physical and digital play.”

The common conceit is an on-screen (phone/tablet) game that’s altered by image triggers hidden in coded toys, cards, and objects. New characters pop up on screen, they get new quirks and skills, and new levels are opened.

Hover a story-playing tablet over a colorful Spin Tales Jungle Rug or Spin Tales Interactive Duvet and you’ll see (superimposed) birds in the trees and Jack’s bean stalk rising to the ceiling. All triggered with cues in the carpet or bedspread.

Spin Tales is the brainstorm of Chadds Ford-based Qaizar Hassonjee, a smart fibers pioneer (formerly at DuPont and Adidas), and his start-up Tilt Textiles. Helping make it real are AR development platform Vuforia and textile maker Welspun India. Spin Tales are $99 each at tilttextiles.com.

Vuforia also showed off AR-enhanced toys from Lego, View-Master VR, and a system of mini-blocks called Swapbots. Snap them together to create 27 characters, which become animated rowdies on your phone/tablet. “It’s ‘Mr. Potato Head’ meets AR,” says Swapbots cofounder John Keefe. $19.99 buys a set, soon. 

For cute and cheap, it's hard to beat Wildlife Wow! soft rubbery animals (starting at $10) previewed from Discover with Dr. Cool.  A back story and videos will open after your phone snaps their pictures. 

If a tower of ghouls is more your speed, check out the Beasts of Balance, a beastly stacking game with on-screen enhancements. $99.

Lightseekers Awakening, a role-playing game for phones and tablets, is being hailed by Japanese toy maker TOMY International and UK/US developer PlayFusion  as "the most ambitious transmedia entertainment platform ever built.”

Action figures are enhanced for game play through scanned trading cards (also a functional AR game), comic book imagery, and a TV series flashing coded cues. The mini-computer plugged into toy figures may also power sentient robots and drones, said PlayFusion CEO Mark Gerhard. Lightseekers lands in July, just at Toys R Us, with a $69.99 starter kit. 

Color we must. While paper coloring is deep in the Crayola code in the “Fashion Superstar” set, the payoff from this Easton, Pa.-spawned product is high tech. After coloring the tops, pants, and dresses in the 64-page design book, kids can snap and drop the images using an iOS or Android app into a COPPA (Child Online Privacy Protection Act)-minded online world. You can adjust the colors, mix pieces in a fashion challenge, and share designs with friends. The $19.99 kit has 18 Super Tip markers and 24 colored pencils.

My first smart speaker. Mattel's Aristotle by Nabi is the first voice-activated smart speaker for a baby’s room. It eases the infant to sleep with colored lights and music and keeps parents tuned in with audio and video, beamed to a phone/tablet. Later, it lets children ask questions and learn things (with a green light glowing when they're right) and request age-appropriate music from iHeart Radio Family (gotta say "please"). Available in July, Aristotle runs on Microsoft cloud computers and Cortana software and adjusts content to the child’s development and habits.

Still smarting from privacy concerns over its “Hello Barbie” doll, Aristotle has been tooled for "COPPA compliance," said a Mattel representative. An alert asks for your approval if the child chooses an unauthorized site. Saying that Aristotle is “8 devices in one,” Mattel is charging $349, including a video camera.

My first hot rod:  When the rechargeable battery-powered Arrow Smart-Kart moves at speeds up to 12 mph, you can dial it down through an app. The ride's front-impact pre-sensing and auto braking reflect the latest grown-up rides. Geo-fencing slows the kart to a crawl if Arrow goes outside an approved zone. Starts its engine at $999.99.

Also offering fun and exercise is the Fisher-Price Think and Learn Smart Cycle, a motivational stationary bike ($150) that propels young riders through tablet-connected games. 

Coding is easy: Judges picked the Thames & Kosmos “Codegamer” as best tech toy of the show. Introducing users (10 and up) to programming, this $149.95 product lets code-gamers play through puzzles and move in the story line using programming language. Then kids use that knowledge to build applications from the experiment manual, from a light-sensitive drawer alarm to an LED disco light that reacts to finger movements.