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Computerized Playthings

By Lynde McCormickStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 26, 1980

Los Angeles

"This is probably how Frankenstein got started," speculates Gary Niles to the four or five people clustered around the small device. They chuckle at the thought, but just a bit uneasily.

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This device is most peculiar. About 10 inches long and 6 inches high, roughly the size of a child's toy truck, and mounted on four toy truck tires, the "thing" consists of a gaggle of electronic circuit boards jammed together in tiers. A spaghetti dinner of multicolored wires connects the device to an assortment of large electronic instruments -- oscilloscopes, a computer, others.

Perched atop this electronic tangle are two little black eyes. Every now and then they rotate 360 degrees, and when someone walks by they follow his movement. John Ross puts his hand in front of the thing's eyes and moves it back and forth; the eyes follow.

Our little group is suitably impressed, delighted, and a shade dumbfounded, even those among us who know John Ross and his creation. This is state-of-the-art, high technology electronics -- with a twist. Mr. Ross used to apply his considerable talents to missile systems, but now the key word in his career is "toys."

This little device with the mysterious black eyes is a toy, one that is probably a year or so away from the toy store shelves, one that will be expensive -- probably between $50 and $100 -- if it ever goes into production. If it does, though, this Ross robot will be able to roll along the floor and pick its way through whatever obstacles confront it. Or it might follow its owner anywhere he or she decides to walk. Or it might respond to voice commands. Or it might do all of the above. Or it may never go any farther than Mr. Ross's workbench.

No matter. He's having a good time trying to program his creation, putting "intelligence into an inanimate object," as he explains it, and having fun is all in a day's work at Smith Engineering.

Mr. Ross is one of about 15 people at Smith Engineering who design electronic toys, the kind that will be heaped under hundreds of thousands of Christmas trees this December. It is a huge industry worth half a billion dollars last year, and the boom is just beginning to gather momentum. It brought $1 million to Smith Engineering in sales and royalties in 1979, double the take of 1978. Even though toy design represents only about half of the company's high technology electronics business, it is important enough that everything else is referred to as "nontoy" sales.

Smith Engineering is the brain child of Jay Smith, a man who often approaches a problem by playing a quick game of electronic football. Like Mr. Ross, he used to work on missile systems -- his career started with a job at TRW Inc., the California electronics giant, designing guidance systems for the Titan and Minuteman missiles and analyzing some crucial elements of the lunar excursion module.

The most popular of Smith Engineering's products is Microvision, a hand-held video computer game manufactured by Milton Bradley. Another, Sound Gizzmo, went on the market just recently and promises to be equally successful. It is a hand-held blue box that allows the user to synthesize a variety of sound effects: helicopter, space ships, laser guns (a la "Star Wars"), speeding cars, explosions.

"That particular toy came about when we built a sound box to demonstrate the potential of a TI [Texas Instruments] sound chip." A "chip" is a trade term for a microprocessor, the tiny electronic "brains" of practically every electronic device. People always wanted to play with it, so finally this one company said, 'Can you make it for us for under X amount of dollars?'" recalls Mr. Smith.