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Issue 12 - Vol 4 Winter 2012, $10

R O B O T

T O Y S

Minds of their own. Exploring the world of artificial intelligence in today’s toys

$10.00

U.S.

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CAN


DEPARTMENTS Contributors 6

News and Notes Tom Riggins 40

Like Grandpa Used to Make Jon Lee 72

Editors 8

My Favorite Toy Geoff Jones 46

Spinning Wheels Robert Perry 76

Yo-Yo Mark Zeske 20

Big Screen Little Screen Jon Smith 50

Teen Toys Rhonda Simms 84

Toxic Toy Land Margot Rosevelt 16

Toys Of Stuff Ursula Theodore 54

Kids at Heart Jack Hanson 90

Outa the Moutha Ted Brody 32

Time and Toys Robert Perry 60

Readers Speak Thomas Nast 36

Toys That Work Harland Cage 68

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FEATURES 87 Robot Toys Maxine Hedruum Exploring the world of robotic toys.

124 Galaxy of Choices Steve Spratt Reminiscing at the Star Wars revolution

105 Barbie Turns Fifty Sandi Strenkowski As she nears 50, Barbie continues to reign supreme as America’s vinyl goddess.

132 Still On Board Karen Leggett Board games of the millennials

110 Big Top Toys Jack Tempest Who can frown at a clown?

162 Surviving the Big Wars Arthur McAthu Toys from the Greatest Generation continue to thrive with timeless design.

144 The Turbulent Seventies Richard Obrien Relive the action and politics through the favorite toys of the period TOY MAGAZINE // 5


EXPOSED

Margot Roosevelt // Los Angeles CA

P

lastic toys and child care products are being tested by a Chicago lab for the presence of chemicals that will be illegal after Dec. 1 in San Francisco. They line the nursery section children’s toy stores like brightly colored candies: rubber duckies for bathtime, chewable rings for teething, soft-covered books for pawing and mouthing. Parents shopping for their babies can be forgiven if they assume that everything on those shelves is 100% child safe. At issue are contaminants in plastics used to make the toys. Environmentalists have long argued that some of these chemicals can leach out and

The Age of Synthetic Playtime The European Union has banned some chemicals in toys since 2004, and now half a dozen state legislatures are considering similar laws

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harm children, pointing to animal studies that link the substances to birth defects, cancer and developmental abnormalities. The European Union has banned some chemicals in toys since 2004, and now half a dozen state legislatures are considering similar laws. The controversy centers on a family of chemicals called phthalates (pronounced “thalates”), which are used to soften vinyl, and on bisphenol A (BPA), a substance used to make clear and shatterproof plastic. Most are known to be so-called endocrine disrupters, capable of interfering with the hormones that regulate masculinity and femininity. In a paper published last year in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and several universities found that boys born to mothers with higher phthalate levels are far more likely to show altered

genital development, linked to incomplete testicular descent. Harvard School of Public Health studies report that men with higher phthalate levels have lower sperm counts and damaged sperm DNA. The American Chemistry Council (ACC), which represents manufacturers such as ExxonMobil and Dow Chemical, says the crackdowns on toys are not justified by the science. “The E.U. aims to ban products that show adverse effect at very high doses in rats,” says the ACC’s Marian Stanley. Meanwhile, toy companies are relying on a 2009 review by a Consumer Product Safety Commission panel that found “no demonstrated health risk” in toys made with DINP--one of the phthalates used in vinyl. Critics fault the panel for failing to examine the effect of DINP when combined with other phthalates.


HOMESICK

T

he Koosh Pro Yo isn’t exactly man’s best friend, but the toy isn’t exactly a dog either. More importantly, if you are one of those gamesters who get really excited about Walk the Dog and other yo-yo ‘tricks, the Koosh Pro Yo is for you. And it would be a great gift for someone fascinated by yo-yos, but who could never quite get a grasp on how to make one work The colorful toy does indeed work especially for those of us not quite ready for the yo-yo hall of fame. And it comes in several different color schemes, allowing fans to be color-coordinated when they amaze their friends and family. The yo-yo comes ready to go right out of the packaging, which surprisingly is a key to the product. The back of the packaging contains simple, yet effective instructions on 20 // TOY MAGAZINE

how to do four of the yo-yo community’s standard tricks: The Spinner, Forward Pass, Walk the Dog and Rock the Baby. The instructions allow you to quickly progress in your skills, using one trick to help you get ready for the next. One of the Pro Yo’s biggest strengths is the way it is put together. The yo-yo can be easily taken apart and reassembled, a big plus if you’ve ever had your string tie you up in knots. Instructions on taking apart and stringing the Pro Yo is also included in the packaging, another big plus. The packaging also promotes the Pro Yo as the “World’s No. I Trick Yo-Yo,”

a bit of hype which might go by unnoticed except for another detail trumpeted on the packaging: “Longest spinning fixed-axle yo-yo ever.” Despite all the hype, another strength of the Pro Yo is that it really does spin much longer than similar products. This, of course, makes it easier to do all those fancy tricks and impress your friends. The Pro Yo isn’t fabulous enough, however, to make a lasting impression on someone that doesn’t already like yo-yos. So while it might be a great product compared to other yo-yos, the Pro Yo doesn’t fare well among the heated competition in toy land.


PANDEMICS

N.Y.

A

n integral part of the American scene for approxi mately 75 years, invented in 1927 by Eduard Haas III, PEZ Candy continues to be enjoyed by generations of Americans. PEZ was first marketed as a compressed peppermint candy over 70 years ago in Vienna, Austria. It was originally a breath mint for adult smokers, thus the first dispenser which came along in 1947, naturally, looked like a cigarette lighter. Today, over 3 billion PEZ Candies are consumed annually in the U.S.A. alone. With great tasting flavors and collectable dispensers, PEZ is more than just a candy...it’s the pioneer of “interactive candy” that is both enjoyable to eat and fun to play with. The PEZ dispenser, invented in 1948, was initially targeted for adult smokers, and the first dispenser was designed to look like a cigarette lighter (no character heads). In 1952 Edward Haas brought his business to America and did extensive research with his products and the way children had grown attached to them. So in 1952 the first fruit flavored Pez was introduced along with the first Pez dispensers with character heads on them. The first flavors of Pez included cherry, 32 // TOY MAGAZINE

lemon, orange and strawberry. These were the flavors that Edward thought the children would like the most. It is not certain, but some experts think that Mickey Mouse, and several other Disney characters were the first to appear on the top of dispensers. The top selling dispensers of all times are Mickey Mouse, Santa, and Dino the dinosaur from the Flintstones. Since the beginning of dispensers, over 275 different characters have been featured on top of a dispenser. Before 1987 dispensers did not have “feet”. Feet are the two tabs on the bottom of the dispenser that help it stand up straight. The new Pez “regulars” are a remake of the first dispenser that looked like the cigarette lighter. The new regulars have no feet. The most money ever paid for a single Pez dispenser was $3,600 brought at auction for a Big Top Elephant dispenser. PEZ Dispensers are a hot collectable for adults and children alike, as well as being a staple and part of American pop culture. New character dispensers are introduced regularly to capitalize on current trends. Available around the world in more than 60 countries, PEZ Candy and Dispensers truly have universal appeal.


R O B O T

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T O Y S

Maxine Hedruum // Atlanta GA

T

he ubiquitous Furby and other interactive playthings offer a window into the digital environment of the near future, dense with intelligent machines. The scene, repeated over and over, always went something like this: A harried parent fought through the stream of other, equally harried parents at Toys “R” Us or Kay-Bee Toy Stores or F.A.0. Schwarz. She could see the display for the diminutive, furry, talking toy, but as she approached, she found that the shelves were bare. In every store, on every Web site, the same sad tale. In October 1998 the Furby joined the hula hoop, the Frisbee and the Barbie doll-that rare class of toys that transcend mere popularity. It became a cultural landmark, a window into what children are really drawn to. What was the source of the Furby’s appeal? The rotund, wide-eyed fur-ball was designed to be cute-something like a cross between an overfed hamster and the character Gizmo from the movie Gremlins. As a plush toy, it would doubtless have enjoyed a certain modest degree of success. But once four double-A batteries were inserted into its plastic bottom, the Furby came alive-it became a yammering, demanding being that hungered for food, affection and companionship. Sales of the Furby made it a genuine craze. But the Furby’s TOY MAGAZINE // 97


success was more than just a fad. The Furby is the best example of a new class of toys-reactive, verbal and engaging creations that act more or less unpredictably, depending on the circumstances, and that learn from their environment (an environment that includes, most prominently, the child). Keychain-size toys such as Tamagotchi and Giga Pets had pioneered the idea of the virtual pet, an LCD-based creature with the need for food and affection etched into its embedded software. But the Furby represents the first real outpost on that playful frontier. Thus the Furby represents much more than the toy of the future. Whether the Furby really counts as artificial life is largely a question of semantics, but to many children and even to some adults, that game is already over. Encountering a quirky, nonhuman, but thoroughly real intelligence is a thrilling experience, and to some extent, people instinctively recognize such an intelligence as life. And the Furby’s successors, which are multiplying throughout the ordinary world, will react to people and interact with them in ways that will be progressively more flexible and more intelligent. To their creators delight, those machines have crossed an imaginary line from the procedural to the unpredictable. So embedded are such devices becoming in daily life that it has become meaningful to speak of a digital ecology. A disciplined study of that digital ecology has only just begun. All interactive toys have at least two kinds of components: sensors, which enable the toy to know what is going on in its environment, and affectors, which enable it to respond. The Furby possesses sensors that mimic several human senses: light sensors, microphones, switches that turn on or off when tilted (an approximation of the sense of balance in the human inner ear), pressure switches (standins for the sense of touch) and so on. All of those sensors are wired into a set of microprocessors mounted on the circuit board. As the signals from each sensor flow in, they are sampled for their current values and fed into a complex 98 // TOY MAGAZINE

computer program that brings the Furby to life. Although the mechanical design of the Furby is ingenious, the Furby’s program is the real work of art, carefully crafted to make the creature seem as lifelike as possible, given its limited capabilities. A conservative estimate of the Furby’s brainpower puts it at one ten-billionth of the human capacity. But the toy seems alive because its design plays on the human desire to anthropomorphize-to view the inanimate and nonhuman as human. People do this all the time: look at how they act toward their beloved cars, boats or computers. Yet those devices never respond to the affection. The Furby, by contrast, reacts with facial expressions and a programmed verbal capacity to the cues in its environment, to create the illusion of real life. What is more, Furbies evolve. Although such a claim may seem ridiculous to make for a mechanical device, an important part of the Furby’s programming is devoted to its evolution. When its batteries are first installed, the Furby speaks a patois made up mostly of Furbish,a vocabulary created by its designers, with a few English words sprinkled in. Then, as the child plays with the Furby, more and more English words work their way into its vocabulary-just as you might find with a child who is making the transition from baby talk to intelligible speech. Although that development was easy for the Furby’s programmers to simulate, it adds depth to the experience of owning the toy. There is more. Like a real pet, the Furby remembers its interactions with its owner, particularly those activities that bring its owner delight. (That, too, is easy to program: if a child likes a certain activity, he or she will repeat it. Endlessly.) As the Furby grows up,the toy is increasingly prone to engage its owner in behaviors that bring the two together joyously. By the time it is fully mature, each Furby is a reflection of its owner, a combination of mechanisms, programming, recorded memories and evolving behaviors that together give a compelling simulation of a real


Like a real pet, the Furby remembers its interactions with its owner, particularly those activities that bring its owner delight.

live being. Of course, it’s all an illusion; the Furby is not conscious, at least not in the way people think of themselves as conscious. But the Furby provides enough of a vehicle onto which a child can project her own ideas of what constitutes a human being that it becomes hard not to treat the toy as a real animal, with feelings, needs and desires. The way it engages its owners reflects something about human psychology-and about the future of human relations with the artificial world. The Furby is a starting point, a launchpad into a new chapter of the long story of man and machine. To understand how the Furby and Furby-like devices are likely to develop, however, it is useful to sketch a brief review of the conceptual history of artificial intelligence, or AI. Even creatures that are much less intelligent than people are adapt their behavior all the time. Consider the housefly, which manages to weave its way through the air to land upside down on a door frame or even a moving object. The fly, with its rudimentary nervous system, can perform such tasks nearly flawlessly. The multimillion-dollar robots of the 1970s couldn’t even come close. The earliest pioneers of AI regarded human intelligence as a concrete reality. Thus, in their efforts to mimic intelligence, they packed elab-

orate instructions into their machines to try to anticipate virtually every aspect of reality that the machine would encounter. That approach was a dismal failure. With Brooks’s approach, computational processing is modular, distal and simple: modular, because the processing performed by a single robotic part, such as one of Genghis’s six legs, has little or nothing to do with the processing in the other parts; distal, because the processing is far from the head of the beast,and has little to do with its brain,or executive functioning; and simple, because the routines test for direct sensory inputs, such as the distance from an appendage to an external object. Each module learns by playing in its environment, much the way a baby does. Throughout history, adults have neatly divided their world into two parts: the animate and the inanimate, the living and the dead. That is a kind of knowledge about the world that children acquire between the ages of four and six. But those categories may be changing because of the new AI: because of the Furby.

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Barbie

TURNS

50 Sandi Strenkowski // Birmingham AL

T

here are dolls that talk and dolls that walk. There are dolls that cry and dolls that pout. There are dolls that burp and dolls that eat. But through this endless sea of plastic. One doll remains head, shoulders and hairdo above all others. Just one year shy of her 40th birthday, Barbie-the most popular doll in history-continues her hold over us. All of us. Barbie collectors range in age from preschool girls to grandmothers. Hey, even the fellas are smitten with Barbie, although its doubtful that any boast about their attraction with any of their buddies. Still its

kinda fun checking out the guys in line at the local retailer with that big pink and white box tucked under their arm and “Its for my daughter” scribbled across their face. There are more male Barbie collectors than you’d think,” says John Nunes, president of the Tickled Pink Barbie Club in Boston. “You’d really be surprised.” Approximately 25 percent of all Barbie collectors are now male. It doesn’t occur to people whether they are a male or female Barbie collector because they understand the obsession.” Indeed Barbie reaches far beyond social status, age or gender. She TOY MAGAZINE // 105


even reaches beyond the borders of the United States. She boasts legions of fans in 140 countries. Some estimates suggest that two Barbie dolls are sold somewhere in the world every second (one for keeps and one for play of course). Still, Barbie is as American as Apple pie and Chevrolet. Heck, Barbie even has her own song, Barbie Girl by Aqua. Can G.I. Joe or Spawn say that? Not bad for a 39-yearold, 111/2 inch mannequin who couldn’t fight evil invaders if her doll house was at stake. Maybe its not quite what Ruth Handler had in mind when she created Barbie in 1959. At that time, Handler, then the co-owner with her husband of an upstart toy company called Mattel, simply wanted a doll that could be a role model for young girls. What she created has been a cash monster, albeit a beautiful, tastefully outfitted one. Taking Barbie from Handler’s brainstorming notepad to the manufacturing plant at Mattel was hardly a snap. Most of Mattel’s male design staff didn’t think the idea would fly because of the lofty production values Handler demanded. Clearly, Handler finally won this battle and the doll war thanks to Barbie, which by the way is named for handler’s daughter, Barbara. Barbie was introduced to the world at the Toy fair in 1959. Ken came later, and not coincidentally, was named after Barbara’s brother Kenneth. That first Barbie doll sold for $3. Today, an original Barbie in pristine condition is valued as much as $8,000. The key word in the previous sentence is “pristine” Today’s collecting market is obsessed with packaging, and for many collectors the packaging of Barbie is just as important as the doll itself. Each box tells its own story. Mattel, Barbie’s main benefactor, is unsurpassed in the attention to detail given to packaging the doll. Finding a doll in a flawless box rates high among enthusiasts. Early dolls still tucked away in mint condition boxes demand a higher price on the 106 // TOY MAGAZINE

A Market Tip: The best advice for collectors is to buy only what you like. It’s virtually impossible to own everything,

secondary market for obvious reasons. Most dolls were meant to be opened and played with, and that’s exactly how the majority of them were used. The reason for Barbie’s appeal to collectors is as varied as her countless styles and accessories. For some it’s not so much the doll as it is the fashion. Barbie often sports a special costume, trinket or certain pair of shoes that makes a particular ensemble different from a previous release. When it comes to fashion, Barbie has no peer, plastic or otherwise. Not only are 120 new ensembles designed for her each year, but she has the fullest closet this side of Imelda Marcos, having worn more than one billion pairs of shoes since trying on that first pair in ‘59. Oh yeah, she’s also sat patiently for at least 500 professional makeovers. So what do collectors like the best? It depends on who you talk to. Some prefer the wedding Barbies, others collect just mermaid Barbies, angel Barbies or Barbies with, “gasp”, no blonde hair. Barbie has found much success in aligning herself with themes, such as the popular “Hollywood Legends” series which features our girl as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. Marie from The Sound of Music, Scarlett from Gone With the Wind and Eliza Doolittle from My Fair Lady.

A special Marilyn Monroe Barbie has also been produced.Barbie has entered the sports arena in recent months as a college cheerleader in the “University Barbie,” and with the new NBA and WNBA Barbies. In short, Barbie is a gal of many talents, and for each one there is a buyer willing to dig deep for two dolls — one to take out and display and one to keep in the package. But no dents, dings, creases, rips, tears or other general mutilations to the box, please. Indeed supply and demand plays a role in the plastic world of Barbie as it does the Beanie Babies population or the real world of orange futures and pork bellies. Is it limited. Is it limited? Is it Barbie? Sounds like a winning combination. A perfect example is the Norwegian Barbie from the “Dolls of the World” series, which was initially produced with Barbie wearing a dress of dark blue fabric with pink flowers.Very nice. Only somebody at the manufacturer miscalculated on the amount of fabric needed. Not so nice. The result: only about 3,000 Norwegian Barbies that feature the pink-flowered fabric were produced. The bulk of the Norwegian Barbies feature the more-common dark blue fabric with reddish-orange flowers. As a result, the pinkflowered Barbie carries a value that is twice that of the reddish-orange Barbie.


“Today, an original Barbie is valued up to $8,000”

Mattel, the owner of the Barbie trademark has been savvy in her marketing. Exclusives — an “Evening Flame Barbie” only at Sears, “Shopping Chic Barbie” only at Spiegel — have advanced retailers as a major player in the Barbie stakes. And Barbie fans have discovered that those exclusives usually mean fewer numbers than the mass-marketed and non-exclusive Barbies. The “Harley Davidson Barbie” sold exclusively through Toys “R” Us and Harley Davidson outlets in the fall of 1997 entered the market with a $60 price tag. Limited production and high demand has now pushed the secondary market price to between $150 and $250. And Mattel is slowly releasing Barbies (Bead Blast Barbie, 50th Anniversary Edition, Pink Rapunzel) with a slight face change that includes a new nose and a closed mouth. Mattel has also announced plans to give Barbie a slightly altered body design in the future as well. Barbie has been through so many changes, dabbled into so many careers and so many hobbies, that it can be confusing just trying to keep up with her. The best advice for collectors is to buy only what you like. It’s virtually

impossible to own everything, even if you could find it all. If you don’t make an instant connection with the doll the first time you lay eyes on it, maybe you pass and wait for the next one. Don’t worry, Barbie will understand. This is one mature lady who isn’t going anywhere. She and Mattel can afford to wait. Sandi Strenkowski is a freelance writer and Barbie enthusiast in Birmingham, AL whose love for the little blonde has evolved into a home based mail-order business. her web site can be found at http://members.aol.com/alastren/website.

TOY MAGAZINE // 107

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