While the name certainly implies a technological slant, the Digital Kids Conference at the 2013 Toy Fair on Tuesday and Wednesday was not all app-talk and virtual worlds. In fact, a theme emerged as quite the opposite: many new products in the toy market are combining digital with some physical product. Just as Skylanders was the talk of last year’s toy fair with its video gaming component combined with physical figurines that could be implemented into the game through a virtual portal, startups like Sifteo Cubes and even goliaths like Disney, which is launching its own Skylander-esque Infinity game, are realizing the importance of marrying tech with something tangible.
Even digital “toys” being sold as apps or online games that exist solely on screens are still making the efforts to mirror the “sandbox” experience of child play. Many new toy companies spoke about the importance of creation and community, emphasizing how interaction with digital products is key and should mirror behavioral patterns cultivated in real life. Toy Talk, headed by former Pixar exec Oren Jacob, aims to do this by creating characters that can actually hold a conversation with children, not dissimilar to Siri, and Roblox is a game that allows kids to virtually construct their own games and worlds in a souped-up, online version of Legos for the online gaming set. Roblox’s DIY model of allowing kids to create for themselves and others to modify reflects earlier statistics from Interpret’s global study that revealed user generated content (UGC) triples time spent playing.
Despite the huge emphasis on gaming (UK consultancy KZero reported more than $800 million of venture capital poured into this sector in the past five years), Björn Jeffery, CEO & Co-Founder of Bonnier’s Toca Boca identified physical/digital mashups as an “anti-trend” of “ungamification.” Most digital games and toys have been made in the interest of learning—following a linear structure that teaches or instructs kids in the process of using them. Toca Boca’s goal with their apps is to emphasize free-form creation over goal-oriented play, allowing their digital offerings to function more as toys than as narratives. The important thing with creating digital products, Jeffery emphasized, is distilling the themes of the physical product, not just transferring them to another medium—and this, he even pointed out, is coming from a book company, where narrative is usually key.
In some markets, combining digital products with physical ones is not only trendy, but essential. In an anecdote from Chinese company Apple Toon’s Calvin Ng, when conversion rates were low with users of their online gaming portal, conversations with parents revealed that they would only pay more for the website if some kind of tangible product was offered. As a result, selling toys with gaming cards became the savior of the company and buoyed their otherwise “pathetic” revenue. Ng also offered some interesting cultural insight about Chinese kids’ interaction with games: while online user-to-user interaction is popular in the US, something like Club Penguin would “never work in China”, as kids there are less inclined to make conversation over the web and are more interested in their personal experiences in the games themselves. Also, in Asia, Michael Cai‘s data from Interpret revealed that South Korean kids have highest penetration of smart phones and tablets — 32%, and Japanese have lowest (in their study) because they tend to play on Wii and Xbox-like devices. All told, 86 million kids worldwide are actively involved in gaming, which includes subscription, social media, apps, etc.
As in the publishing industries, some companies are adapting their products to digital forms better than others, but there is much innovation and a pretty obvious desire for products that can function in both the digital and physical worlds. The desire to rush into the digital space is tempting, but there is a balance to be conscious of; after all, as Robin Raskin, Founder & President of Living In Digital Times quoted a colleague in the final panel, “You can’t bake a cake faster just because you turn the oven to 800 degrees.”
Lorraine Shanley contributed to this article.