Next Tickle Me Elmo? Fair Showcases Hot Toy Trends

At last week's American International Toy Fair, many companies unveiled new tech toys scheduled to hit stores later in the year. We weeded through football fields of toys to find the ones that stood out from the rest.

Virtual Worlds

With the popularity of Club Penguin and Webkinz, other toy makers are trying to tap into the virtual world craze. Here are two virtual worlds that are planning something different from those already playing in the virtual sandbox.

ME2
From iToys, $34.99, for ages 8-14, coming in August 2008

While ME2 (pronounced "Me Too" which stands for "My Electronic Double") shares the popular Webkinz model of a physical toy providing you a presence in a virtual world, this toy/virtual world is refreshingly different because it is all about motivating children to exercise.

The ME2 handheld gaming device looks like an outsized pedometer and it operates in a similar manner. While kids can play simple arcade-style games on it using its full color LCD screen, the device's main purpose is to track children's physical activity and translate that activity into Power Points that are used in a virtual world. While carrying the device, any movement on a kid's part converts to Power Points stored in the device.

By plugging the ME2 into your computer via a USB connection, you transfer your stored points and enter a rich and vibrant 3-D virtual world. Developed, in part, with an advisory panel of 60 children ages 8 to 13, this world beckons you to explore different lush islands.

To play you create an avatar and then use your Power Points to make your avatar more powerful in areas of agility, jumping, speed, luck, and intelligence. The Power Points can also be used to buy currency in this world. For example, you may find you need a flashlight to explore a dark cave in the online world. To purchase the virtual flashlight, you will need to do something physical in the real world. So kids may hop on their bikes, play hop-scotch, or join a soccer game to earn enough Power Points to buy the flashlight.

This massively multiplayer virtual world will go into beta testing in June, and plans to roll out in August.

Disney Fairies Pixie Hollow
From Disney Online, pricing to be announced, but some of the game will be free, and other parts will be supported by subscription, for ages 4-up, coming later in the year

Disney (the parent company of ABC News) has already created a Web site that allows girls to create their own personalized fairy avatar at www.DisneyFairies.com, but later this year, that avatar will be able to play in a bigger, magical, massively multiplayer world called Disney Fairies Pixie Hollow.

As a fairy in Pixie Hollow, you will be able to explore homes and meadows, play and chat with other fairy friends, customize your own home and look, play games, and go on quests. Some of these quests will be to find famous fairies like Tinkerbell. Other quests can take you offline to pursue real world quests like recycling or making someone laugh.

"When playing in Pixie Hollow, girls not only view themselves as virtual fairies, but really think and feel that that they are, in some way, real world fairies," said Steve Parkis, senior vice president of Disney Online. "We believe it is important to give them the opportunity to continue the experience by expressing their 'inner fairy' in the real world, outside of the online experience."

When girls return online to report about their off-line quest, they will be rewarded within the virtual world.

Unique to this virtual world is the addition of Fairies Clickables, special collectible jewelry that houses new technology which, when touched to other Clickables, transfers information. Developed in partnership with Techno Source, this jewelry will come in the form of charms, charm bracelets, and necklaces that can be stored in a jewelry box which connects to the computer via a USB connection.

By simply clicking (touching) two charms together, girls will be able to pass on in-game items, unlockables, and fairy friendship information.

Wii-Inspired Movement Games

Parlaying the great success of the Wii, many toy companies are producing video games systems which require kids to move to play.

V-Motion
From VTech, $69.99, for ages 3-7, coming in Fall of 2008

Like the Wii, this gaming system for young kids uses a wireless controller that is motion sensitive. Kids play by moving the controller around, not simply pushing buttons.

But unlike the Wii, all of the games for this television plug-and-play system are educational. The new system will be launching with one game and eight add-on titles ($24.99 each) including ones featuring WALL-E and Kung-Fu Panda.

Ulti-Motion
From Jakks Pacific, $79.99, for ages 4-up, coming in Fall 2008

The Ulti-motion system is a television plug-and-play system that combines video gaming with role-playing toys. Like the Wii, it features a wireless motion controller which senses kids' motions as they play.

The system comes with a console that plugs directly into the A/V jacks of the TV, the wireless controller, and role-playing accessories that attach to the wireless controller to help further the imaginary play.

Parents will have three different packages to choose from. The "Ulti-Motion Swing Zone" is a sports package which will come with a bowling ball, football, baseball bat, tennis racquet, and golf club attachments. The other two packages will feature Disney properties including classic Disney Princesses and Playhouse Disney Preschool properties.

The role-playing accessories for these sets will reflect the theme of the product including a set of fairy wings and a wand that attaches to the controller in the Disney Princesses set.

U-Dance
From Tiger Electronics, $74.99, for ages 8-up, coming in Fall 2008

Picking up on the "Dance, Dance Revolution" craze, Tiger Electronics has developed a way to mimic that gameplay without your having to own a gaming console and the corresponding dance mat controller.

By plugging the U-Dance console into your TV and then attaching special motion capture tags to your shoes, this game lets you become the dance controller. You are no longer limited to moves that you can make on a dance mat.

Reading Pens

Several years ago, interactive book readers like the "LeapPad" and "Active Pad" were all the rage. The newest tool to help children read will be pen-shaped devices. Three are hitting the market this year:

TAG
From Leapfrog, $49.99, for ages 4-8, coming in June 2008

The Tag is a pen-like device that houses a computer processor and optical sensor. When it is touched to the surface of a specially made book, it can read the whole page or individual words. It can also create fun sound effects when touched to illustrations. Other icons on the page can trigger interactive games.

Another bonus is that the audio reading of the book can be accompanied by musical interludes and original character voices.

The Tag system comes with one book, but Leapfrog is launching it with a library of 16 other classic children's books, which will sell for $13.99 each.

Poingo
From Publications International, Ltd, $34.99 (for a pen and two books), for ages 4-7, coming in August 2008

This reading pen will launch with two Disney books: "Cars" and "Finding Nemo." Like the Tag, it can read the whole page or individual words.

Touching illustrations will trigger other exciting audio interactions. Add-on books available at launch will include four classic Disney books with more books coming in October.

Cypher
From Cold Fusion, approximately $24.99 (for the pen), for ages 3-7, coming late summer

This reading pen will launch during the late summer with Brainy Baby books. Like the Tag and the Poingo, the Cypher instantly narrates or produces a fun sound effect when it is held over a word or picture on a page of a specially made book.

Jinny Gudmundsen is the kid-tech columnist for Gannett News Service and USA Today.com, and is also the editor of Computing with Kids Ezine.

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