Feb 28 2014, 5:06am CST | by Forbes
There is a war going on in the bedrooms of our children. Sparked by waning sales of soft cuddly toys, the industry has responded with an arsenal of aggressively marketed interactive soft play-things. This should, perhaps, be no big surprise as it is the way of things at retail.
The number of choices here are mind-boggling, but basically parents need to choose between commercial toy-based products on one hand and educationally led interactive designs on the other. I’ve had a close look at two of the leading contenders with my family, and recently got hands on with new innovations at Toy Fair.
Head of the field for capturing the hearts and minds of our young folk is Furby. Its prestigious history means there is more to these furry virtual pets than meets the eyes. Last year saw the arrival of Furby Boom to much acclaim which extended the usual Furby play-pattern to an interactive iPad game.
At Toy Fair this year Furby (from $49.99 on Amazon ) not only had some new colors and outfits but a couple of new additions to the range. Mini Furblings are (relatively) cheap collectable plastic Furbies with a twist.
They are miniature (admittedly adorable) Furbies not unlike the Telepods in size and shape that unlock a digital version of themselves in the app by scanning a QR code with the Tablet or Smart Phone camera. They are purchased individually like other collectable toy-lines.
While this is a nice addition for a pocket money priced Furby, crossing over virtual and physical assets like this can be confusing for families. As we’ve seen in Angry Birds Go! , that allows players to buy either physical or virtual versions of characters, it can become confusing exactly what you are getting for your money (that you couldn’t get cheaper elsewhere, or perhaps even earn for free by playing).
Happily it seems that the Mini Furblings unlock creatures in the Furby Boom app that couldn’t be access in other ways. Even so Hasbro have their work cut out to communicate the intricacies of this transaction to parents and children.
Keeping the Mini Furblings company on store shelves this year will be a set of half-sized Furblings. These can also be scanned into the app to unlock an exclusive version of themselves to play with virtually. But here the real excitement is in how they interact with the full size Furby Boom. A little like the Furby Party Rockers they respond to the big Furbies by talking, playing and even singing.
While the Furby universe is not a cheap one to get into, provided a little restraint is shown on the collectable side of the range it offers great value and a lot of novelty for families. There really is nothing quite like it on the market that has such a comprehensive set of interactions combined in strong personalities.
At the other end of the interactive Plushy spectrum is Ubooly (from $29.99 on Amazon ). Rather than big corporate backing this product comes from a successful Kickstarter and has more ethical and educational aims than some of its more commercial counterparts.
First off it’s a much cheaper product than some of its counterparts, something that is achieved by using your iPod Touch, iPhone, iPad or Android device as the electronics rather than selling you a plush with its own internal circuitry.
You place your Smartphone or Tablet in the big soft Ubooly plushie and it becomes the brain, face, ears and mouth of the creature. The result is impressive and matches other products for both the endearing quality and production values.
Interestingly, even without the touch sensors of Furby, Ubooly manages to create a tactile interactive relationship with the child (or older) player. It leverages the extra horse-power of the Tablet to achieve relatively reliable speech recognition, which again underlines the interactive side of the toy.
Unlike Furby, Ubooly talks using English (or one of the six different supported languages). This means that instead of the cute Furblish statements of Hasbro’s product (which it should be noted can be translated with an app) Ubooly can tell stories, encourage play and generally trigger the child’s imagination.
This is Ubooly’s biggest benefit and challenge. Without having played with (or watched your child play with) the brightly colored plushie it is hard to appreciate how unique a play scheme it creates. Through intelligent writing and engaging spoken scenarios Ubooly soon has children imagining their bed is a pirate ship or charging round the house to escape the rampaging pirates.
At Toy Fair Ubooly also had a new physical story book on display. These books could be read with a child by a parent, but also come with a token to trigger Ubooly to read the book with them.
The experience shouts independent developer at every turn and this is a breath of fresh air in the crowded commercial toy market. With a constant stream of new content for Ubooly from the team, without the usual hook to buy more and more paraphernalia this is a very strong offering for families with younger children. Parents can even customize the content for their child.
Having spent time with both Ubooly and Furby Boom at Toy Fair within a few minutes of each other I was happy to see that this battle for children’s hearts and minds was resulting in some great and imaginative products.
While each couldn’t be more different they certainly play to the strengths of the two companies. Ubooly offers quirky, artisan crafted interactions and play with an educational bias while Furby Boom came with a big brand bells and whistles leaning heavily on “the cute”.
More information on Ubooly .
More information on Furby .
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