As kids keep getting plugged into the Internet, toy makers are following them online.
At the annual American International Toy Fair this week, toy makers showed playthings like Power Rangers helmets which store secret missions found online, plenty of online games and even devices that take kids to secure Web sites where they can play activities without wandering into the darker corners of the Internet.
"Toy companies are looking at where kids are playing and targeting product against it. Younger and younger kids are becoming more comfortable with the Internet," said New York-based toy consultant Chris Byrne.
Children as young as three years old are using the computer, said Julia Fitzgerald, vice president of marketing at VTech Holdings Ltd.
The company showcased the Whiz Kid Learning System, a learning pad that comes with an USB drive to connect to the computer, enabling books and activities to come to life. The system also has an icon button on the computer screen which children can click onto, connecting them to an online site for more games and activities.
VTech launched the popular V.Smile learning system in 2004 and followed with a portable handheld version to capitalize on video games, so it was time to come out with a learning system that would connect to the computer, she said.
"We have become a download nation," said Fitzgerald, noting that children are constantly downloading music to their digital music players.
According to Nielsen/Net Ratings Inc., an Internet research company, the number of online users in the 2-to-11 age group rose 19 percent to 15.1 million in December 2006, from 12.6 million in December 2002.
The latest strategy comes as the nation's toy industry has been under pressure to bring back children bombarded with other entertainment options from iPods, cellphones and online community sites.
Toy companies are looking online to make even traditional stuffed animals look modern. For example, MGA Entertainment Inc., the maker of Bratz dolls, unveiled Web-Pups under its Rescue Pets brand. The plush dogs come with registration codes that children input onto the site Web-pubs.com to access games and activities.
Neil Friedman, president of Mattel's Mattel brands division, said new security technology is helping to fuel interest in these toys. Mattel's Fisher-Price brand is showcasing Easy-Link Internet Launchpad, where parents can plug a character figure like Elmo and be taken directly to the game section of the character's Web site like sesamestreet.com.
Hasbro Inc.'s Tiger Games division is also marketing Net Jet, a game system that offers preteens 40 online games with titles such as "Super Soaker" and "Mission Paintball." It features a controller that children plug into the computer's USB port and unlock by inserting game keys that instantly launch them into the online game experience of their choice. Gail Carvelli, a spokeswoman at Hasbro, said that one of the big benefits in offering these online games is that Hasbro can enhance and update the games without asking parents to buy new ones.
The games and activities have to be compelling enough for parents to pay for them, or they'll resort to a slew of free online sites available, stressed Stephanie Oppenheim, publisher of Oppenheim Toy Portfolio, an independent guide to toys and other media.
Security will also be a key issue, Oppenheim noted; parents will need to feel safe that children can't get around the game system and venture elsewhere. Hasbro's Carvelli noted that with Net Jet, when a child unplugs the controller from the USB drive, the user automatically gets kicked offline.
These Internet-based toys are cost-effective, Byrne noted.
"It makes it possible to refresh the product without coming up with a new toy," he said. That helps keep children interested without having to keep investing in creating a new product, Byrne noted.
Whiz Kid's learning books from VTech, for example, have about 40 different pages of content, featuring 120 learning activities, but users can access far more material online.
Industry executives say they are not just adding technology to their toys; they are using the Web to enhance children's favorite play patterns, from acting out their favorite hero's roles to personalizing information.
Bandai America, maker of the virtual pet Tamagotchi, has been aggressive in this area, reaching out to both boys and girls. At the trade show, it introduced Girlz Connect's Destiny, a personal game player that downloads material from http://www.girlzconnect.com, to tap into preteen girls' penchant for sharing quizzes and personalizing information online with friends. With Bandai's Power Rangers Mega Mission Helmet, kids download three-minute secret missions directly from the company's Web site http://www.bandai.com and act out the action.
As for Tamagotchi, Bandai is making the virtual pet more interactive on the TamagotchiTown.com site, enabling the user to control the future of their favorite character by using special passwords. Consumers can also buy a PC pack that allows children to interact with the characters on screen through games and other activities.
"We just wanted to spice it up," said Colleen W. Sherfey, director of marketing at Bandai America.