Practical? Probably not—but what a blast! The 2013 Toy Industry Association Toy Fair unveiled quite a few surreal and ultra-modern toys that really push the envelope. Some of these playthings were not quite ready for prime-time—while others were both awesome and all-systems-go! Take a trip to the future of play and check out these over-the-top offerings:
Romo the Smartphone Robot. (Romotive; ages 6 and up; $149; iOS) Romo wants to be your friend, and you'll be on board once he (her? it?) pops up on your smartphone, trying to attract your attention. Romo is basically a play system that lets your phone become the brains—and face—of a virtual pal who's programmed to respond and interact with you. The system consists of a mobile base with a place to put your phone equipped with the free downloadable app. An additional phone or a Mac is required to control this smartphone on wheels. The device doesn’t skimp on aesthetics—the bright blue and white color scheme will appeal to kids and grown-ups alike. Romo's many moods are truly engaging, with a minimalist touch—they strike just the right note without going overboard. Romo runs around, reacts to people and obstacles, and much more. As fun as it is, parents need to be aware that, although the price of this robot-toy is relatively reasonable, all of the components together can add up to a pretty penny. Moms and dads should consider letting a small child go to town unsupervised with an expensive phone (or two), a computer and a robot. Still, this is an awesome effort by developers who clearly care about what they're doing. It's one of the most captivating tech-toys out there and definitely worth a try. Available summer 2013.
Brain Wave Cat Ears. (Necomimi; ages 14 and up; $69.99; iPhone, iPad, Android, Mac and PC) I see your ears moving! Wiggle your ears with the power of thought with this sci-fi toy. These cute cat ears that you wear on your head use a type of technology that's been around for a while. The setup is similar to a bio-feedback machine and it's actually quite safe. The device will respond to moods, moving up, down or all around in response to the emotional roller coaster of life. The effect is awesome. The educational benefit however is unclear—unless you think that the child who has the absolute coolest gadget on the block is the one getting the brain-boost. That's not entirely a joke. There's something to be said for toys that inspire and this device certainly does that. Magic cat ears could get kids excited about science, technology, robotics and other mind-tingling subjects. Available now.
Sphero Robotic Ball. (Orbotix; ages 5 and up; $129.99; iOS and Android) Let's play ball—using your iOS or Android device, of course. Sphero is basically a ball with brains, and the brains are located in the smart device that controls it. Start by downloading a controller app and then pick up the Sphero. Shake to turn it on and it should connect via bluetooth to your iOS or Android device. The basic (free) app Sphero Driver lets you move the metal sphere around with whatever device you're using. You can speed Sphero up with "crazy speed" or "boost,” maneuver it around furniture in your house, or just use it to torment your cat. There are many other apps, most of them free, such as Cat Space Party or The Rolling Dead (zombies, of course!). The Sphero is a bit pricey considering it's essentially just a ball—but it's the ball of the future, and if you must have the latest thing you can't go wrong here. Although high-tech, Sphero is very durable and can be bumped, battered or dropped without breaking. The basic apps are easy to use and suitable for kids as young as 5 or 6— although you can't say the same about the controller, i.e. Mom or Dad's smart phone or tablet—and parents might want to use caution with younger kids. Simple, fun and addictive! Available now.
RoboMe. (WowWee; ages 6 and up; price TBD, iOS) RoboMe is the latest addition to WowWee's extensive line of robotics toys that include Robosapiens, Bugbots and Robocreatures. The innovative part of RoboMe is the ability of the robot "body" to incorporate a smartphone brain and face as part of the package. It uses the same familiar cartoon robot body as the older toys, but kids can swap out the "face" and replace it with a smartphone. Download the free app and the whole thing comes to life with a bewildering array of fascinating features. The bot can be programmed to sing, respond to voice cues and gestures, and the avatar (the personality that appears on the phone face) can be created and customized using a mix-and-match approach with different eyes, mouths and even funny accents. The menu of options is extensive and a little confusing, but the RoboMe is still a prototype. The real deal will be released sometime in fall of 2013. Many of the effects are truly stunning—this is a toy will a ton of potential and it will be worth checking out once it's fully baked and ready to release.
HolograFX. (Goliath Games; ages 7 and up; $39.99; iOS and Android) Turn yourself into a holograph and be the star of the show—or practice cool magic tricks in 3-D. HolograFX is a truly unique new toy system that uses a smartphone with a holographic "stage" to create amazing effects. The HolograFX set comes with the stage, a projector "dock" for a smartphone, assorted accessory pieces and an app. Download the free app and get started with the show. You can follow the pre-packaged narrative or get creative and record yourself on your phone and play the video in holographic mode on the stage. The results couldn't be more surreal or astounding. There's a mini you dancing on the holodeck! The recording feature lets kids collaborate and get creative with this visionary plaything. Available summer 2013.