Gary Pope, CEO and co-founder of Kids Industries

Gary Pope, CEO and co-founder of Kids Industries, explores how technology has given the opportunity to create new play experiences for our digitally native children

Generation Alpha started arriving on the planet in 2010, but the Smartphone, internet, AR (Augmented Reality), VR (Virtual Reality) and Bluetooth had put down roots long before. If, as the late Sir Ken Robinson – an international advisor on education in the arts to government – suggested, technology is anything that was invented before you were born, it is fair to say that the children for whom you make products see no distinction between traditional toys and those with technology built in. Digital simply does not exist.

What I can say is that the arrival of technology throughout the past 50 years isn’t going to change the core needs that all children have for healthy development. Play will always serve the purpose it always has – to prepare them for life as an adult.

Vtech Marble Rush

“Toy manufacturers need to give consumers want they want, and what children of game-playing age desire is interaction”

Technology does, however, give us the opportunity to create incredible new play experiences for our digitally native children, to extend play patterns, increase learning and offer a whole new level of personalisation. Quite a responsibility.

Technology in toys is nothing new of course. My personal favourite was MB’s 1978 Star Bird complete with an accelerometer – something we didn’t know existed until the iPhone made it famous 30 years later.

Fast forward to today and the reality is that it is possible to develop deep and meaningful interactions between toys and their owners, and as such it’s more fun to play with them – meaning more and more want to see it. This results in greater funds being invested in making the experience better to encourage wider adoption – I’m sure you get the idea. Toy manufacturers need to give consumers want they want, and what children of game-playing age desire is interaction.

Over the last few years, we’ve worked across many digital/physical crossover projects, and I want to share two sets of perspectives with you: one set that might help your product development process, and another that might support your ideation processes.

In our work we see the toys that children play with tend to be driven by one or more of three things: social Interaction, problem solving, and creativity. And that’s no great surprise. Additionally, in the development of digital crossover products, parents’ needs mirror children’s needs almost exactly. As a result, we’ve codified the hierarchy of benefits that parents want to see in the digitally enhanced toys they purchase for their children.

Every toy development is unique of course, but this guide can help to ensure that messaging and development are working for the all-important purchasers of your shiny new digital crossover product. You will, of course, need to create the digital toy in the first place however!

Here’s a few thoughts from our research and development team on getting started:

Really know what the end user is capable of doing, before you begin development: while many children own their own device, the younger they are, the simpler the tech UI (User Interface), and UX (User Experience) need to be. Understand not only what they are able to do physically, but where they are in terms of their cognitive development – and use this as the basis of your insight for product development. Remember it’s all about stage, not necessarily age.

Be clear on WHY you are using the tech: it’s easy to be excited about some new gizmo or concerned that a competitor might beat you to a killer line but measure twice and cut once. Really, really make sure that you are applying the technology that will make a good toy great.

Properly integrate the play feature with the tech: digital enhancement should do just that – enhance. The line between the tech and the toy should be invisible.

Ease of use: a smooth experience needs to be baked in from the very start. It sounds so simple, but how many toys have you seen that just missed the mark entirely? See the development process through kids’ eyes. Test with children, test with children and test with children again.

Be very clear on regulation: while there is no formal clearance system for tech in toys, regulation around privacy is where many have fallen. If there is even the smallest element of data (literally anything at all that is collected and used), make sure you have the correct permissions. Better still, find a way to not use data at all – and certainly don’t store it.

Many have tried and failed to get this space right and it’s not just the little guys either. Many big companies have tried with limited success. There’s been several attempts that didn’t quite hit the ‘sweet spot’ for various reasons. But LEGO’s Hidden Sides, for example, seems to have nailed it. This pioneering spirit means the marriage of tech with toys is not going anywhere anytime soon. 

The market has grown through its teething period and the future looks super bright for those that are ready for it. Through toys we prepare the next generation for a future that can’t even be imagined just yet, so getting your crossover products as near to perfect as possible is not only good business, it’s good citizenship. Good luck.

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