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Some Creativity Required

Are toy makers finally getting the message?

It has been 30 years since MIT’s Seymour Papert first asked: “Should the computer program the kid or should the kid program the computer?” Until recently, the toy industry has taken the former approach, churning out high-tech toys that do little to enlist children’s native creativity. Technology, says Henry Jenkins, director of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program, has mostly been used to create dolls that simply “say something other than ‘Mommy.’ “A welcome change seems to be in the works, though. Starting last year with the Lego Mindstorms construction kits, toy makers are-tentatively-introducing products that offer kids the opportunity to program, create and invent.

Mindstorms, which enables kids to build and program mobile robots, was the first extensively programmable item to reach toy-store shelves. Kids drag and drop code components to define a programming unit called a procedure, which is sent via infrared to a processor mounted on a Lego vehicle. This vehicle can then move around autonomously, with sensors alerting the processor to obstacles that must be navigated around.

This spring, Mindstorms got company as a few new gadgets followed its lead. One is the Cybiko, a kidfriendly personal digital assistant; the other is a crude, inexpensive video camera that could put digital moviemaking into the hands of the young and allowancedependent. Both offerings conform to the view articulated by Media Lab professor Justine Cassell, who with Jenkins edited the 1998 book From Barbie to Mortal Kombat. The industry’s emphasis on “smart toys” is misplaced, argues Cassell: “It shouldn’t be the case that the toy is smart; it should be that the toy allows the kid to be smart, or creative, in new ways.”

Opportunities for creativity aren’t always as obvious as with the Papertinspired Lego Mindstorms. Sometimes even a slick-looking consumer gadget packs unusual opportunities. The Cybiko-with its wireless communication and tiny keyboard-might be the offspring of a Nintendo GameBoy and an Apple iMac. Created by Chicago-based startup Cybiko Inc., the handheld game system offers several unusual, enabling features.

The wireless communications system allows Internet-style chat with nearby Cybiko users, making it a sort of digital walkie-talkie and providing a new channel over which many kids can communicate at once. A novel feature is the Cybiko’s creativity-fostering software. A text editor is standard; connecting the Cybiko to a PC lets kids load it with new graphics and music-creating software. Cybiko will soon make its CyOS operating system and development software available for free, allowing kids to program it. As TR went to press, Cybiko president Donald Wisniewski said two toolkits would be available for the handheld this spring. One is a “drag-and-drop” editor to change the difficulty of existing games; the editor will be accessible to young children. The other is a full software development kit, created for professional developers, that will likely get some use from teenage programmers.

Another new toy might allow hightech media-making, turning the tables on Disney and Nickelodeon by allowing kids to become filmmakers. No release date has been set for IntelPlay’s Digital Movie Creator, a prototype of which was demonstrated at the International Toy Fair in New York in February by the Intel-Mattel joint venture. The camera is reminiscent of Fisher-Price’s Pixelvision camera of the 1980s, which flopped in the toy stores but which has since become popular among some independent filmmakers because of its uniquely blocky black-and-white images. The IntelPlay system would provide an additional benefit over the Pixelvision, allowing kids to edit their films on the computer to create a sophisticated narrative film or a whimsical video collage.

Other promising products provide new interfaces to the computer, and are already on the market. IntelPlay’s QX3 computer microscope makes possible high-tech scientific exploration, and a way to tap the computer’s image-enhancing properties to help explore the microworld. Zowie Intertainment, founded by TR100 member Amy Francetic, sells toy kits that function as interfaces to an onscreen story world. In one kit, a pirate ship and the people on board can be used to control action on the computer screen, encouraging children to act out different stories.

Most of the toy industry remains more interested in branding and TV tieins than in Papert’s provocative question. But one can hope that these few promising technological toys are the beginning of a new trend, not just a momentary glimmer.

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