BOSTON — Toys are getting so sophisticated, it's a little spooky.
Take the new Barney from Microsoft. The dinosaur doll talks and sings. Cover his eyes and he plays peek-a-boo. And when in front of a TV airing specially encoded programs of the hit "Barney," he will sing along and talk on cue. (The trick is special radio-frequency signals aired bya few PBS stations.)
But if you think a television-activated dinosaur doll is something, hold onto your beanie hats. Companies at this week's Toy Fair in New York are showing off even more sophisticated play-things. Among them are programmable Legos and two new Microsoft dolls that do even more than Barney does.
But parents should look beyond what today's toys can do. "Just because something is electronic or computerized doesn't make it an educational toy," says Mitchel Resnick, who directs the learning-research group at the Media Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Instead, focus on what these toys can teach.
The two new Microsoft dolls are called Arthur and D.W., from the popular PBS television show "Arthur." Like Barney, they have large vocabularies (more than 4,000 words), special sensors that allow them to play games, and accessory packs that allow them to interact with the "Arthur" TV show and "Arthur" computer software. One new feature is that they can also interact with the official "Arthur" Web site.
That's impressive technology, especially for a $110 doll that will be out this fall. (The accessory packs cost extra.) But I'm more intrigued by the programmable Legos.
You remember Legos, those plastic building blocks from Denmark. This fall the company is set to sell a new $200 Robotics Invention System that includes a brick-shaped microcomputer, special sensors and software, and more. With it, children will be able to program what their robots do: a dinosaur that moves toward light, for example, or an elevator that rises to a specific floor with the touch of a button.
Such technology might sound overwhelming for a parent. But according to Lego tests in Chicago and the Boston area, children aren't inhibited at all.
"We find it's a challenge that kids really take to," says Professor Resnick. "The best computerized toys are those where children are using the technology to create things."
Of course, children have long created things with blocks and other nontechnical toys, he adds. So the best computerized toys are not those that simply add a few bells and whistles but actually use the technology to expand children's options.
It's not surprising Resnick likes the new Legos, since the company incorporated many of his lab's ideas in designing them. Still, children have come up with such amazing Lego inventions in various tests that the toy looks promising.
For example: One child built an intruder alarm for his bedroom that sounded whenever someone crossed a beam of light. Another pint-sized inventor created a robot that flips its sunglasses up when the lights go out. By sticking his robot in the refrigerator and programming a small delay in the sunglass flipping, he proved once and for all that the refrigerator light really does go off when the door is shut.
One drawback of these sophisticated toys is their price. Some parents can't afford to buy a $100 Barney or a $200 Lego set.
Still, the Legos are proving to be a big hit among boys and girls who visit the robot exhibits at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. "The most powerful statement is when kids leave," says Eileen Pasero, who coordinates the exhibit. "They're always saying: 'You know what I would do next time?' "
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