CARLSBAD, CALIF. — Here at Legoland, the can't-miss spot that draws the earliest and biggest lines is not Miniland, which uses some 16 million plastic blocks to render the likes of Mount Rushmore, the Louisiana bayou, and the White House, but the Mindstorms Learning Center, where robotics rule as children race computer-programmed cars.
Indeed, chips have changed children's toys forever, from Legoland to the home computer and video games, where technology has created an $8 billion business out of child's play. It's hard to say which changes faster, technology or children's fads, but the result is a breathtaking blizzard of high-tech kids' toys coming at parents. In an already confusing back-to-school season, here are a few highlights of the latest items worthy of a spot on gift lists this year.
On the video-game front: The major stand-alone console manufacturers are still in heated competition for not just the best games, but the best mode of play.
Sega is betting that online console gaming is the future. Just yesterday, the company launched SegaNet, the first Internet service provider (ISP) from a console manufacturer. The Japanese gamer is so sure that the social interaction of multiplayer games is the next wave that it has reduced its Dreamcast console price to $149 and is giving customers who sign up for the ISP ($21.95 per month for 18 months) a $150 rebate plus 50 free hours of play time.
"Social" seems to be the keyword for Sega this season. The company also stands out with the most exotic new game. "Seaman" offers a virtual pet experience, somewhat akin to raising a crotchety old man, with various stages of fish development attached to a grumpy human face. While that is odd enough, the most remarkable "Seaman" feature is the voice-recognition technology. The creature talks, learns from, and listens to you. Careful what you mutter - Seaman hears all.
Nintendo continues its familiar franchises in a family-friendly new game, "Mario Tennis," for the N64 console.
There's fun singles and doubles action with old friends such as Mario, Luigi, and Baby Mario. Sony's big fall announcement is the pending US arrival (currently Oct. 26) of the most powerful console machine yet on the market, PlayStation 2 (PS2). As always with the console world, it's not really about the hardware - it's the games that count. The company has offered sneak peeks at many of the biggest titles that will be available. Two of the most promising: "SSX" and "Smuggler's Run" (a car racing game), with remarkable resolution and performance.
For personal computers, Lego Mindstorms continues to develop new ways to run nifty Lego creations up walls and across racetracks. "Vision Command" actually creates robots that can respond to what they "see" with a small video camera. "Exploration Mars" is an expansion set for the basic Robotics Invention System, which includes a Mars CD-ROM with interactive missions.
Perhaps most eagerly anticipated (due to arrive in November): Lego Studios, a collaboration with Steven Spielberg that will allow kids to make real movies using Lego-built sets. It will include a movie camera, editing software, and an assortment of Lego props. KB Gear Interactive continues its aggressive outreach to that emerging tech-heavy market - young and mid-teens, with an updated, kid-friendly digital camera (JamCam), an MP3 player, and perhaps most provocatively, Jam-It!, a hand-held digital sound lab that offers up to four minutes worth of sounds that can be downloaded and manipulated in e-mails or on a personal computer.
Just in case a budding musician is on your gift list, computer musical instruction has come of age: California softwaremaker Voyetra offers an ongoing series that is fun to use, including "Teach Me Guitar" and "Teach Me Piano." A small Canadian company, Adventus, offers more modest but equally user-friendly computerized instruction, called "Piano Suite."
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