Everyone with a bratty brother should be glad this new remote-controlled toy car wasn’t around when they were growing up.
3:31A new toy designed to help kids in secret spy missions is rolling into town. The Spy Video Trakr is a remote-controlled car equipped with a video camera and microphone, so it can snoop on big sister — or even an unsuspecting dog.
The Spy Video Trakr, which debuts later this week, includes a night-vision video camera, speakers and route-mapping feature. The fruit of a big push by toy makers to appeal to kids who are spending more time on the Internet, it lets kids go online to program the car to do new tricks.
“A kid can program the Trakr to snap a picture of his sister talking on the phone when she is supposed to be doing homework, then drive the car to his parents and rat her out with a pre-recorded message,” says Daniel Grossman, chief executive of the car’s maker, Wild Planet Entertainment Inc. In focus groups, kids came up with their own plans for the car. “Drive it under my sister’s bed and yell boo when she walks in the room,” one boy suggested.
For all its novelty, the car—geared for boys eight-years-old and up—taps into some of the most traditional of children’s play: spying. Spy toys have been perennial best sellers for years, and children spies have populated children’s literature and movies from “Harriet the Spy” in 1964 to the “Spy Kids” movie franchise to the Disney Channel’s “Kim Possible.”
Spy toys became popular during the Cold War with the advent of James Bond movies and TV shows like “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” Spy play took the place of cowboys and Indians. It encompasses good guy vs. bad guy role-playing with children’s natural affinity to “sneak around” and “obtain knowledge they don’t have,” says Chris Byrne, a longtime independent toy analyst and researcher.
In the past, toys like disappearing ink and scopes that could see around corners were popular. More recently, Jakks Pacific Inc. had a big hit with its EyeClops Infrared Night Vision Stealth Binoculars. Using real night-vision technology, the binoculars allow kids to see up to 50 feet in darkness and sell for $59.
Even as play habits remain the same, children—referred to by toy industry executives as “technology natives”—expect technology and graphics to be ever-new and increasingly sophisticated. And toy makers from Crayola LLC to manufacturers of action figures are trying to tie their toys to the Web.
Earlier Spy Kids
‘Spy Kids 2’
The 2002 installment in the movies about a brother-sister spy team.
‘Harriet The Spy’
The 1964 Louise Fitzhugh classic has inspired generations of young busy-bodies and writers.
“Hardy Boys Mysteries’
A late 1970s TV series based on the books, starring Shaun Cassidy, left, and Parker Stevenson.
The amateur sleuth investigates cases for her lawyer dad.
On the Disney Channel, a cheerleader and her boyfriend are also agents.
While toy sales held relatively steady last year—and sales of action figures and board games even rose—Web-connected toys have been much more volatile. Their sales fell 42% to $522 million in 2009 from the year earlier, according to NPD, a market research company.
Pricier toys such as Legos and Wild Planet’s earlier remote-controlled cars sold well. The Spy Trakr, which will retail for $120, might be a tougher sell.
Wild Planet says the Trakr goes a step further than other Web-tied toys. It sends children online to create application and then brings them back to the toy, instead of just leaving them playing related games online.
Crayola is introducing a new feature with its larger boxes of crayons that lets children upload photos to a Web site that they can then turn into characters featured in suggested story lines—from pirates to princesses—that they write themselves. They can print the storybook out and color it.
Robonica Ltd., a South Africa-based toy robot company, recently debuted Roboni-i, a remote-controlled two-wheeled robot that has a Web site and comes with software that enables users to rewrite the robot’s basic’s instructions.
Toys can be a tougher sell than Internet game sites, such as Disney’s Club Penguin and the soon-to-be launched Dreamworks site Kung Fu Panda World. Such sites let kids play games alone or together in cyberspace. They’re accessed via subscription and are expected to generate more than $1.6 billion in revenue next year.
Wild Planet, a closely held company in San Francisco, plans to unveil the Spy Video Trakr at the International Toy Fair. The New York trade show, which starts Sunday, features the new toys for the 2010 holiday season and is a chance for retailers to scout trends. The Spy Video Trakr will hit stores this fall.
Lisa Harnisch, divisional merchandise manager at Toys ‘R’ Us, says Spy Video Trakr takes the experience to a new level. “It’s pretty innovative in the way it allows kids to use the Web to customize their spy missions,” Ms. Harnisch says, adding that she and her team provided input to Wild Planet as it developed the new toy.
Other applications are available for download from a Web site via a USB port; a child can download a night-vision feature onto the remote’s LCD color screen to see the car as it maneuvers in the dark. In addition, tech-savvy kids can access instructions to create their own apps that they can post on a Web site and share with other kids. Wild Planet had planned to introduce a similar toy last year, but was worried it was too pricey to debut in the depths of the recession. “We feel more confident about the economy this year,” Mr. Grossman says.