Toys in smart clothing

Smart moves boost sales of electronic toys

By Peter Feuilherade

Electric and electronic toys form a small but growing part of the toys and games industry. They are defined as products designed specifically for children for the purpose of entertainment or education, and that require a power source (e.g. batteries or power cord) or to be connected to another powered product (e.g. TV or computer) to work. Several IEC TCs (Technical Committees) and their SCs (Subcommittees) prepare International Standards on the safety aspects of toys that use electricity in any form and on the transformers and batteries used with them.

InnoTab®2S WiFi learning tablet (Photo: VTech) InnoTab®2S WiFi learning tablet (Photo: VTech)

Intelligent toys on the march

As well as electrically-powered and motorized toys, the sector also includes tablets and other 'educational' toys aimed at children as well as ones that work with mobile apps and devices such as iPhones. It excludes computer games and gaming consoles.

Many categories of toys, particularly traditional ones, are in decline because of the global recession. But interactive and 'intelligent' toys, accompanied by game applications for tablets and smartphones, are taking an increasing share of the market. Surging sales in these categories are helping maintain the whole industry’s presence. Adults seeking games and toys to relieve increasing stress levels caused by modern life are adding to market growth. And companies such as global software developers are also investing in the lucrative market of intelligent toys, which are popular with computer-savvy youngsters and adults alike .

Reinventing traditional toys

As people of all ages adopt new types of media and virtual behaviour, traditional toys such as puzzles and building blocks are being reinvented with integrated high-tech and/or digital components. Children go online at an earlier age, causing the boundaries between toys and electronic devices to become blurred. The main drivers of growth are toys featuring a high degree of innovation and superior technological features. Game applications for smart phones and tablets are increasing in popularity, especially in the "tween" (age 9-12) market. In the UK, one third of all children are online by the age of seven, and 97% by the age of 13. This trend can be observed in other countries too.

A typical seven-inch touch-screen tablet aimed at children is likely to be Wi-Fi enabled, with a built-in camera and microphone, USB connection and an SD card slot. Preloaded with music tracks, e-books, creative activities and dozens of apps including popular digital games, it will usually also include an MP3 player and video and photo viewers. Parents can synchronize tablets with a PC via a USB cable, customize different levels of internet access and monitor which games and activities a child has been using from an activity log. Children's tablets cost from USD 100 upwards. Typically they use rechargeable LiPo (lithium polymer) or Li-ion (lithium ion) batteries.

International Standards for electronic displays, such as those used in touch-screen tablets are prepared by IEC TC 110: Electronic display devices. The MP3 audio-specific data compression format was designed by MPEG (Moving Picture Experts Group), which was founded by IEC andISO (International Organization for Standardization) as part of ISO/IEC JTC1 (Joint Technical Committee): Information technology.

IEC TC 21: Secondary cells and batteries, prepares product standards for rechargeable batteries.

Learn as you play

Manufacturers are keen to stress the educational benefits of their toys and devices. They say that combining the latest technology with an offering of dozens of learning games, book apps and videos designed to enhance the curriculum helps children to personalize their learning experience while extending their skills across a range of vital subjects including spelling, maths, science, music and languages.

John Baulch, publisher of Toy World magazine in the UK, told e-tech: "Parents seem more than happy to invest in these items due to their high play value and educational content. Kids love them too, because they are cool, fun and now they can have their own version of what their parents have, tailored to their tastes."

Advanced multifunction handheld devices for children often include built-in auto picture rotation and gravity sensor controls to support motion-based games.

Applications can connect products that look and feel like traditional 'stand-alone' toys to digital devices like smart phones and tablets to enable children to interact between the digital and the real world. According to US market research company The NPD Group, in May 2012, mobile devices to which children had access contained an average of 12 apps; 88% of those apps were acquired for free. Manufacturers use a combination of interactive programming (usually through free apps) and robotic engineering to allow customization and enable toys to develop a distinct 'personality' depending on the way they are played with. Toys interact with one another using infrared and Bluetooth technologies.

Sound and light show

Musical toys are just one category of toy that is highly focused on electronic products. They include not only enhanced sounds and flashing lights but other extras such as pre-recorded tunes, mixer functions and touchscreen technology.

As well as electronic versions of traditional board games and memory skill games, longer-established electric toys include model train and car racing sets, cars, boats and aircraft controlled by infrared remote control handsets, while the latest 'flying toys' can be flown indoors or outside, controlled by an iPhone, Android handset or tablet computer. There are also electric toys incorporating glow-in-the-dark elements, LED light-up effects and infra-red sensors and controllers. Kits that include light and touch sensors allow children to create various kinds of electronic circuit and build toy intruder alarms, water sensors or metal detectors.

Several IEC TCs prepare International Standards for the components such as LEDs and infrared, light or touch sensors that are integrated in these toys.

Market forecasts

The toy market is forever recreating itself as populations expand. Every generation of children demands new toys, whether these are traditional favourites in electronic 'clothing' or entirely new products.

Child-targeted electronic versions of adult technology are showing growth in more or less every major market, says UK analyst Steven Reece, who runs a toy and games industry blog.

In 2010, global toy sales of all kinds totalled USD 83,3 billion, up 4,7% year on year, with the Asian toy market notching up strong growth of 9,2% on average. In 2011 the United States remained the leading market for toys and games in general. Asia edged into second place, overtaking Europe.

The emerging economies of Asia-Pacific and Latin America are forecast to account for the bulk of growth of the global toy industry in the short term, fuelled by growing GDPs and an increasing shift towards a more Westernized lifestyle. China is the largest manufacturer of toy products, producing over 70% of the world's total, while Japan remains the global leader in the video games market.

In 2011, toys for pre-school children (three to four-year-olds) and infants and featuring electronic components took impressive percentage shares by value in several markets: 40% in the UK, 45% in the US (pre-school), 52% in Russia (pre-school) and 43% in Japan.

IEC International Standards central to safety

The IEC’s involvement in the toy industry is not limited to the preparation of International Standards for components and systems that are used in toys and games, but also covers conformity and certification as well as safety issues.

IECEE (IEC System for Conformity testing and Certification of Electrotechnical Equipment and Components) plays an important role in the certification of electric toys – one of the 19 categories of electrical equipment covered by the system.

ISO/IEC Guide 50, published jointly by the IEC and ISO (International Organization for Standardization), sets out safety guidelines covering a wide range of equipment intended for use by children, including toys.

IEC 62115Electric toys – safety, prepared by TC 61: Safety of household and similar electrical appliances, deals with the safety of toys intended for use by children under 14 years of age and with at least one function that is dependent on electricity. Products covered include construction and experimental sets, toys which replicate the functions of appliances used by adults (such as tablet computers), video toys and toys using electricity for secondary functions, e.g. containing lasers or light-emitting diodes.

IEC 61558Safety of power transformers, power supplies, reactors and similar products, prepared by TC 96: Transformers, reactors, power supply units, and combinations thereof, covers – among other things – the electrical, thermal and mechanical safety aspects of transformers for toys and power supplies incorporating transformers for toys. Protection against electric shock, overloads and short-circuits is a major consideration.

While one of the primary aims of these International Standards is to reduce risks to children, there are unavoidable risks that attach to the use of some toys. Batteries, for instance, can pose a serious health hazard if swallowed, and safety standards require that batteries in toys must be made inaccessible to young children. The IEC notes the vital role of parental responsibility in the selection of appropriate toys.

Through its International Standards and IECEE, its conformity testing and certification system, the IEC helps toy manufacturers produce toys and games that are safe for children and ensures the growth of an industry worth billions across the world .

InnoTab®2S WiFi learning tablet (Photo: VTech) InnoTab®2S WiFi learning tablet (Photo: VTech)
Baja Beast remote-controlled toy car (Photo: Maisto) Baja Beast remote-controlled toy car (Photo: Maisto)
Logitech® Extreme Action™ Controller for PlayStation®2 Logitech® Extreme Action™ Controller for PlayStation®2