Microprocessors in Toys

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2236, 2004-09-03, as the cover article, in both their print edition (on pages 16 and 18) and their website.

Despite growing archeological evidence, the first human use of toys is certainly lost in the mists of time. Those early designs were likely fashioned from crude raw materials, and made to represent the people and animals found in their environment. Throughout the 1800s and 1900s, as Euro-American societies became more mechanized, so did the toys enjoyed by their children. During the past few decades, with the introduction of the microprocessor, the pace has accelerated, and modern toys have reached levels of sophistication scarcely imaginable by our ancient ancestors.

But before discussing the latest examples of "smart toys", we should consider the origins of modern automated playthings. During the early 1960s, various kinds of electronics were utilized in animated toys to control their motion — allowing them to respond to scripted instructions, pushbutton commands, and even voice instructions.

Further progress resulted in some of the more advanced toys and theme park displays being able to carry on elementary conversations. These developments in the burgeoning field of "animatronics" were largely pioneered by the creative engineers at Disney, who created seemingly magical stationary robots that utilized coded audio tapes to control and synchronize the figures' movements with their audio output. On many levels, these noteworthy efforts were reminiscent of the "Wizard of Oz".

During the 1970s and 1980s, as the electronic controls became increasingly miniaturized, they could be fit inside of typical toys, and produced on a commercial scale, making animated toys broadly affordable and available. One of the earliest examples of this was the remarkably successful doll, Teddy Ruxpin, an animated and talking teddy bear first introduced in 1985. Other microprocessor-controlled toys of that era were racecars, girls' dolls, laser tag games, and toys for infants that made animal sounds (the toys, not the infants).

Robotic Rover

Building upon the technology developed and the lessons learned by earlier engineers, the toy companies nowadays are creating a wide range of electronic playthings. One of the hottest areas currently is that of robotic dogs. The first generally available one in this category was the AIBO, created and marketed by Sony. Yet aside from its technical innovation and marketing claims, it appears to this writer to be less like an artificial dog, and more like a silver child's toy horse.

While the AIBO's initial $2000 price tag placed it out of reach of the average consumer, its introduction was a milestone in mechanized toys, and encouraged the development of similar products. Naturally, many of the dozen or so competitors have attempted to differentiate themselves from Sony by adding various enhancements to the original design. Some of these so-called "features" are of dubious value, such as a built-in cyber flea. People concerned about future abuses of nanotechnology and interspecies parasites, can only shudder at the thought of what polytechnical plagues await us in the future.

Defenders of the cyber canines can argue that these products, despite the currently high price tags, could deliver some real benefits to their owners — features far more beneficial than one such dog's ability to produce the sound of "tinkling". For instance, these robotic dogs are increasingly able to display autonomous behavior, as well as carry out specific commands, such as retrieving objects from other rooms. For the handicapped owner, this could have appreciable value far greater than the convenience to a mobile but lazy person who just wants his mechanical dog to fetch his slippers.

Moreover, the representatives of Japanese electronics manufacturers point out that, with the aging of the populations of industrialized countries (Japan being but one example), low maintenance pets could be a real boon to elderly and lonely people, who often do not have the energy and resources to maintain a live pet, but who would still benefit from the companionship of an artificial one.

Nonetheless, these robotic animals have a ways to go before they can come close to replacing their natural counterparts. The proponents of these products point to the easier upkeep of the mechanical creatures: "No fleas, no food, no fur". Right, and no love. In my mind, they are too much like a mobile and far less useful computer.

State of the Art

As the cost and size of microprocessors decline over time, and their capabilities increase, it is easier for toy manufacturers to embed these chips in a wide variety of products — everything from small handheld games to sizable and remotely-controllable toy airplanes. As one might imagine, some of the most advanced toys nowadays consist of tried and true toys of yesteryear, but enhanced with microprocessors to allow remote control, more realistic sounds, and intelligent interaction with their environments.

Lionel LLC has been manufacturing toy trains for over a century, and now they can utilize microprocessors to control everything from rendering a train's whistle to directing the path of the train on its tracks. There's no word yet, however, on whether AIBO will chase the cyber train on its own.

If travel beneath the waves is more to your liking than riding the rails, then the Ocean Explorer-1 submarine may be more fun for you, I mean, for your children. Made by Megatech International, this radio-controlled submarine can dive, ascend, and patrol the depths of your swimming pool, fish tank, or local fountain, searching for lost treasure, such as coins tossed in for good luck. It features three front-mounted exploration lights, twin motors, and flashing lights to warn fish and mermaids. But don't venture too deeply, as its radio control is limited to about six feet through the water.

Combining land, sea, and air, the Land Air R/C, manufactured by MGA Entertainment, is a radio-controlled airplane that is capable of launching from its land cruiser, whether it is on the ground or in the water. As such remotely piloted vehicles become larger, and capable of caring cameras for transmitting images back to the user, they will become increasingly similar to the pilotless drones used by the military to perform surveillance on hostile enemy terrain. Something to keep in mind the next time you are enjoying some nude sunbathing in the "privacy" of your backyard.

More Work, Less Fun?

As with all technological advances, their greater capabilities raise the specter of unforeseen downsides. As these so-called "smart toys" get smarter, are their users getting dumber? In fact, given the intensifying complexity of these devices, are children really playing with them as toys, or trying to figure out how they work, like tool users? The closets and landfills of America are filled with countless toys that proved too difficult for the average child (or even parent!) to figure out.

On the other hand, smart toys give children more opportunities to learn at an early age how to interact with the increasingly sophisticated and intelligent objects in their environment, and thus prepare them for the future in which everything from the clothes they wear to the buildings they live in, will, to varying extents, be automated and interactive. Like all tools, they can be misused to our detriment, or used to our benefit. It's up to us.

Copyright © 2004 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.