Fourteen years ago, Hasbro unleashed a small, furry, wide-eyed toy into the world. It came in wild colors, spoke a strange language and disliked when its owner held it upside down.
It was 1998, and Furbies had officially arrived.
In the first three years of production, Tiger Electronics sold more than 40 million Furbies, and "Furbish" -- a language unique to the toy -- was translated into 24 different, real-world languages. As with many suddenly booming toys, Furby's enormous popularity eventually died down.
So how does a 14-year-old toy stay in the game? Hasbro, and many other toy makers, believe the answer is hidden behind the shiny, sleek glass of Apple's iPad tablet computer. Indeed, today's most popular toy is the app -- and that's precisely where traditional toy makers see the future of their own products.
In many ways, the integration of traditional toys with the digital, always-connected iPad makes a lot of sense. Apple has sold more than 100 million iPads since it introduced its tablet computer for the first time. Nielsen, the market research firm, estimates that 31 percent of kids between the age of six and 12 want an iPad. The device's App Store is bursting with games, and the iPad has quickly become a teaching tool for parents and educators. Its touch-based input is intuitive, which is particularly effective in attracting children -- not to mention that kids tend to want to play with something they see their parents using.
Toy makers have experimented with going digital for some time, using several different approaches. The company that makes Lego building blocks offers an interactive assembly guide. For its Hot Wheels line of die cast cars, Mattel turned Apple's device into a race track that kids can roll their cars over. For Hasbro's Furby, the iPad serves as a Furbish translator as well as a place for owners to obtain new foods to feed their furry pet.
"We now have the technology possible to essentially read how you're treating this creature and have it develop a personality that reflects how you treat it," says Kenny Davis, marketing director for the company's New Brand Franchises group, which includes the Furby.
The reaction to these new app-enabled Furbies has been largely positive, Davis says. Sales are good, and product testing with kids have them thinking they're on the right track. After playing for a while, "kids want to say goodbye to the Furby," he says, as if it were a pet or a person.
But not every company is enjoying the same success, says Jim Silver, the editor-in-chief of the online toy magazine Time to Play. For all its hype, the bridge between the physical and digital in children's toys is a trend that never quite caught on with consumers. "There are a few that work very well," he admits. "But for the most part, I see this becoming less of a trend going forward."
That's because the idea of combining a physical toy with an iPad is at odds with the way parents want their kids to use iPads, Silver says. Even before the tablet, parents were very conscious of how much time their kids were spending in front of a screen. For a long time, this simply meant keeping track of how much television their kids were watching. But the number of screens available to kids has multiplied, and parents are very aware of that. "They're still monitoring screen time," he said, "but that screen time used to be one screen, and now it's four different screens."
So parents don't want their kids spending all their time in front of a screen. Nor do they want to let their kids loose with a $500 piece of equipment. Which means that kids who are playing with iPads, are doing so in very specific situations, Silver says. "I consider them travel toys -- out to dinner, on vacation, in cars, trains and planes." In other words, places where parents can watch their kids and where the kids are less likely to break the device. These settings are also places where having another item on their lap -- like a physical toy -- isn't quite as feasible.
This could be where some toy apps fall short. With the Apptivity line put out by Mattel, kids must place their toy on top of the iPad's screen for the game to work. With Furby, Hasbro's little furry robot is fully functional with or without the tablet there. Kids can play on their own -- with their Furby, of course -- and come back to the iPad later. "I don't think the Furby sells because of the app," Davis says. "The app makes Furby even more fun."
Jenie Fu, a partner at OgoSport -- a toy company that makes purely physical toys aimed at getting kids outside to play -- says she doesn't feel pressure to integrate with the digital realm. "We have arms and legs and feet and we need to use them," she says. "We can't just plug into the computer forever and ever." Plus, parents still want to buy their kids toys that take them away from their screens.
Just because a tablet computer provides a compelling visual world doesn't mean that things kids can touch and feel will go away, Fu says. She likens it to music. "You can play musical instruments digitally, but traditional instruments aren't going away." To liken it to Apple, just because you can play a violin using GarageBand software doesn't mean that physical violins will cease to exist.
Silver says market demand could all simply come down to money. A new Furby costs $60. The addictive mobile game Angry Birds is priced at just under a dollar. "Why do you have to buy a toy when you can get a great app for 99 cents?" Silver asks.
Furby's makers feel differently -- not all toys should travel down the computer-companion route, Davis says. "I feel strongly that they're not right for everything," he says. "It's still two dimensional. It still has borders." But one thing's for sure: whatever the form, conventional children's toys are not disappearing anytime soon.
"Toys hold a place in our world," Davis says. These are objects that we can pour our imagination in."
Image: Amanda, Flickr