Feature Story

How Sensors are Taking Smart Toys into the 21st Century

by Melissa Jun Rowley

The Internet of Things moves to the toy shelf. Explore the emerging sensor-based smart toys market.

Chatty Cathy, Speak and Spell, Teddy Ruxpin—sound familiar? They were all smart toys, or toys with the ability to learn through their own on-board electronics, of previous decades. Modern smart toys are entering the 21st Century through sensor-based technology. Sensors can measure and track anything from city traffic to the number of miles people walk in a day. So it was only a matter of time before they started making their way into the hands of children. Aiming to attract digitally savvy parents and curious toddlers, smart toy designers and manufacturers are using sensors to help moms and dads watch their child's development more closely.

See Also: Take This Sensor and Call Me in the Morning

The Denmark based start-up DXTR Tactile, which presented at Web Summit 2014 in Dublin in November, showcases playful challenges and tasks custom made for a child's age and developmental level, while collecting data about the child's cognitive and spatial skills. Through the connected sensors, the information from the toy is viewable to the parent via a mobile app. The toy itself resembles a physical set of Tetris-looking cubes called Kubit, which have magnetic edges and embedded electronic sensors. If a child has any developmental delays they're easily recognizable through the toy's virtual and physical features.

How is the data assessed and analyzed?

"We strive to analyze the data as close to what makes sense about the interaction," says ANAS Engineering CEO, Kenneth Madsen. "Going back to spatial awareness, imagine a task like: ‘place the green cube ON TOP of the red cube.' We can measure if the result was correct, if not, what was the error? How fast was the task completed? And move on to ‘place the blue cube TO THE RIGHT" of the red cube,' building more complexity. When does the child begin to make errors? When do other kids in the same age and with the same skill begin to make mistakes?"

DXTV Tactile marketing manager, Clara Beats Malm, explained that a parent said "playDXTR is ‘like LEGO meets Luminosity.'"

Speaking of LEGO-like tech toys, the robotics toy Robo includes a set of cube-shaped bricks containing sensors and microprocessors that enable kids to be guided by a mobile app as they build. After a robot is built, the kids can learn how to program it through the app.

With robots being all the rage in the technology ecosystem, it's no wonder sensors are a huge hit in robotics—particularly tiny robotics. Standing at a half inch tall, Ozobot can react to over 1,000 different commands through optical sensors located on its belly.

Malm said that she and the ANAS Engineering team are very aware that the sensor smart toy market is growing quickly. Start-ups aren't the only makers using sensor technology to make toys more intelligent. Toy manufacturing giant, Mattel, has an interactive dinosaur called Screature that uses infrared sensors to sense and attack its prey with the help of the user.

For older age groups, sensor toys can be used to connect the physical world to the virtual sphere in a more sophisticated manner. In October, InXusInteractive announced that its interactive tech toy Verve 2 is available for consumers. The product uses different sensors including force, touch, pushbutton, light, turn, motion, magnet, and sound to do online activities such as playing games and apps or sending emails and texts. According to InXusInteractive, Verve 2 can be used to build things like a real slingshot for playing Angry Birds and a burglar alarm that sounds off when a kid's parent is about to enter the room.

The trend among the latest smart toys is tactile meets tiny sensors. Will tactile meets large sensors lead to bigger and more intelligent toys, or are these already on the market in the form of robots and machines?


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