Simple and Affordable Emerging "Technology”
Emerging technology in the toy industry might not look the same as emerging technology in medicine or personal electronics.
In 2010, if you were to do a survey of the top 100 best-selling toys on Amazon.com, you would find less than 10 items that contained any electronics. A survey in 2013 revealed that not one of the Amazon.com top 10 best-selling toys contained electronics or even any significantly advanced technology — the top sellers included card games, rubber bands, and injection molded blocks. Popular toys (excluding video games) tend to be simple, low-tech products such as Silly Bandz or Squinkies. In a culture of video games and smartphones, there is still a market for simple physical play. Even with the popularity of the virtual building block game, Minecraft, sales for low-tech stalwart Lego were up 20 percent in 2013 over 2012. Digital play currently lacks the face-to-face social element and the tangible interaction.
In society today, one can almost view digital toys as a separate market. There is a toy box and there is a smart device. These realms are beginning to collide. What is called a toy today might not what you typically find at a big box retailer such as Toys R Us. Children are playing with tablets, smartphones, and laptops. A smartphone can hold thousands of games (an infinite number, if web based) and many are free. How can the board game industry compete with unlimited and free? One answer is that the physical and social bonding element cannot be replaced with the digital equivalent. Designers are still inventing new types of blocks and sticks and children still want to play with them.
YOXO is a Minneapolis-based company that inspires children to create their own play. There is an old adage that the best child’s toy is a cardboard box. That is exactly what YOXO sells: connectors for toilet paper rolls, boxes of boxes, tubes of tubes, a giant empty refrigerator box, and so on. Sometimes, less technology is less restrictive.
Innovation can be incremental and it can be radical. Incremental innovation is about doing something better, whereas radical innovation is about doing something different. The toy industry tends to be more incremental. Often incremental innovation is more easily assimilated into culture as people can quickly understand and relate to it. From experience talking with toy agents and toy companies, if the idea cannot be explained by looking at a box image for a few seconds or with a 20-second video demonstration, the concept will be more difficult to sell.
As a personal example, in my Master’s thesis at MIT, I designed a bi-stable spring mechanism that can be used to launch foam balls. This technology was used in the Nerf Atom Blaster, but it is not highly visible in the product. The mechanism allows for a slightly different interaction with the toy and a reduction in part count.
Recently, YOXO filed for a patent on a connector design for assembling toilet paper tubes. This technology is the basis for their product line, with which children can construct their own toys with cardboard and other recyclables, as illustrated in Figure 10-4.
Figure 10-4. YOXO is a construction toy developed by Jeff Freeland Nelson
In these two toys, there are no cutting-edge sensors or algorithms, but they are both examples of patent-worthy technology that are valuable and innovative in the toy industry. The technology is simple, subtle, and inexpensive. If you visit a toy fair at which industry and inventors are demonstrating and selling new products, the response to emerging technology there is more like, “Why didn’t I think of that?” as opposed to “How did they do that?”