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At high-tech toymakers, it's visions of '87

By Barbara BradleyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 23, 1986



Washington

Christmas Day, 1987, may look something like this at the Smith family. A radio-controlled dune buggy careens around the Christmas tree. Susie puts on her roller skates, which rev up and screech as she goes around the corner - watch out for the lamp! Melanie is talking to her stuffed animal, who can respond more intelligently than its ancestors. Jack aims his new gun at Melanie and shoots a capsule of brightly colored goop, leaving her in tears and her mother calculating the extra loads of laundry the gun will mean.

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Already, the toy industry is abuzz with toys for 1987. It is during the next two months, before the Toy Fair in February, that many deals with retailers are made. The upshot: Old standbys like G.I. Joe and Barbie will still be around; but high-tech will finally hit its stride, propelling the industry into 15 to 20 percent growth next year.

Probably no one person is more responsible for shaping the future of toys than Donald Kingsborough, founder and chairman of Worlds of Wonder. His company's first-ever product, introduced last year, was Teddy Ruxpin, a talking bear; for an encore, the company came out with Lazer Tag, a gun that shoots a harmless infrared beam of light at the opponent. Both items were the hottest toys of the year.

The key to his company's success - one that has captured the attention of his competitors and will likely be the guiding force in the toy business - is taking kids' dreams and putting a high-tech spin on them.

``We take existing technologies from other industries and apply them to children's products,'' Mr. Kingsborough says. Teddy Ruxpin, whose computer technology cost $2 million to develop, came from the entertainment and robotics industries. Lazer Tag, which cost $3 million to develop, takes technology from the electronics industry.

And next year? Kingsborough is circumspect, but he says '87 products will be keyed to the aerospace, - ``every kid wants to fly,'' he says - telecommunications, and defense industry. He says the company has ``30 or 40 projects'' going on for products over the next few years.

Many of the new toys will look the same. ``Lazer Tag and Teddy Ruxpin actually have things built into them already that haven't been announced yet,'' he says. For example, voice recognition and video interactivity technology have already been developed. Teddy Ruxpin is already popular, so it is a short step to put them together to create an educational tool.

The same is true of Lazer Tag, which Kingsborough describes as a ``way to communicate.'' ``Everyone else will copy the hit part of it, but not what it needs to do later,'' he says.

To keep ahead of the game, Worlds of Wonder, based in Silicon Valley, is marshaling as many high-tech inventors as it can. Next year it will have 180 engineers, more than the rest of the toy industry combined, Kingsborough believes. Many of these engineers have track records, coming from companies like Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Apple Computer, Stanford University, and the University of California. Last year, every Worlds of Wonder engineer filed for at least one patent.

In some ways, the history of Worlds of Wonder parallels that of Apple Computer. Now, like the computer industry, ``the major toy companies have lost the initiative in creativity to the small, young companies,'' says Paul Valentine, a toy analyst at Standard & Poor's.

Other small companies, like Lewis Galoob and LJN, as well as Worlds of Wonder, are wowing retailers, while big players like Tonka Corporation, Kenner Parker, and Hasbro Inc. are treading water, he says.

Here's a smattering of the potential big hits next year, according to toy analysts:

Radio-controlled vehicles. So far, Japanese companies like Nikko have dominated this area, but American makers are coming on line with dune buggies, tanks, and other vehicles.

Laser games. Parents who couldn't find Lazer Tag or a similar product, Photon, this year will get a second chance. LJN is pushing action figures equipped with their own laser guns.

Interactive animals. More-sophisticated talking animals and dolls will be able to respond more intelligently with children. Mr. Valentine expects a lot of these, including highly sophisticated and costly ($100) Cabbage Patch dolls.

Techie action figures. Tonka has a male action figure whose torso and face are a hologram.

Of course, there's always more to be done with old products. For example, Galoob is introducing an ``animatronic'' board game, which has a host that ``makes abusive comments as you play,'' says Valentine.