Tots and Teens: New Markets For Consumer Electronics Firms

New product list includes pocket organizers and crayon mouse

ELECTRONICS companies have done such a good job selling gadgets to adults, they're now trying to sell them to children.

Companies such as Sharp, Casio, and Sega all introduced new products targeting the younger set last year. This year, they're expanding their offerings.

``There's really a hole in the market for 10- to 17-year-olds,'' says Lydia Gable, marketing manager of Sega of America's new toy division, based in Redwood City, Calif. ``There isn't anything out there, with the exception of video games, that's designed for kids,'' she says. ``Boom boxes and Walkmen are certainly strong items, but the kids at that age have outgrown GI Joes, and they're not quite adults yet, and they're not quite happy with the kinds of toys that adults like, such as computers, so there's really a hole there.''

Sega, which already makes video games, is trying to fill the void with a rash of new toys. Its pocket organizer for boys, the IR 7000, includes a Sega game, for example. In February, the company expects to announce new youth products, based on its organizer and its electronic-learning aid technology, called the PICO.

While Sega is coming to the market as a toy merchant, other companies are taking different tacks. ``We are trying to stay away from toys,'' says Adam Masur, product marketing manager for Sharp Electronics Corporation, the Mahwah, N.J., a subsidiary of the Japanese company. Last fall, Sharp began to ship its own version of the youth electronic organizer, called the Pocket Locker. The $49 to $59 organizer does most of the things that an adult organizer does. But it includes a homework scheduler, tracker, a mirror, and a place for a favorite picture. The product is aimed at girls, just like a similar organizer from Casio, based in Dover, N.J.

Last year, the industry sold more than one million youth organizers, says Casio's marketing director David Schwartz, and expects to sell some 1.8 million units this year.

Sharp says it will expand its youth electronics line. ``You certainly will see other teen products from Sharp,'' Mr. Masur says. Casio is already selling everything from a child's label maker to juvenile versions of a word-processor, portable compact-disk player, and FM-radio headphones.

The explosive growth of the home-computer market has also attracted electronics companies. A major reason parents buy computers is for their children. So many companies are rushing to sell computer peripherals for children.

A little more than a year ago, Ilana Diamond, president of her own video- and photo-accessory company, was walking through a computer show with her staff when the conversation turned to children. One staffer told about a three-year-old who decided to embellish a computer-paint program by marking up the monitor with a crayon. Others told about sing-along CD-ROM software that made too much noise.

``It suddenly occurred to us: Maybe we should start doing this,'' Ms. Diamond recalls. So the company, Sima Products Corporation, based in Niles, Ill., came up with a line of six children's computer accessories, which it began selling last fall. They include the easy-grip hand-held mouse (the cursor never leaves the screen, so children won't think it has disappeared). There's also the screen guard (for protection against crayon) and the wireless headphones that can be adjusted by adults to limit volume.

``It has great potential,'' Diamond says of the youth-electronics business. ``Our orders far outstripped what we were projected to sell.''

Sima will have plenty of competition from companies already in the computer-accessory business. For example: APT Appoint Inc., a computer-mouse manufacturer based in Paso Robles, Calif., is selling ``Computer Crayon'' - a mouse for children that looks like a crayon.

If most firms are bringing adult technology to children, a few are doing just the opposite. Seattle-based Virtual i-O, for example, is bringing the cutting-edge technology called virtual reality to computer games first; only later will such applications move into the business world, says company president and founder Greg Amadon.

In a couple of weeks, Virtual i-O expects to begin shipping its $799 personal-computer unit with headset. By putting on the headset and goggles, game-players get the impression they are ``in'' the game. If they turn their head to the right or left, the picture before their eyes shifts to the right or left too.

This virtual-reality technique could make computer-games more realistic. Mr. Amadon says he is talking to 30 major video-game developers. ``Everybody that makes the games today is interested in having head-trackers and head-mounted displays work with their games,'' he says.

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