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Staying Relevant, Toy Makers Have an App for That

If you have a toddler and an iPad, chances are you already know what I'm going to tell you: even before a child can talk, they can operate intuitive devices like iPads, iPhones and Droids. And once they use them, they are hooked.

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This isn't lost on toy makers, who are using a variety of tactics to keep kids of all ages engaged amid the increased competition for a share of kids' playtime. At the American International Toy Fair this week at the Javitz Center in New York, toy makers were rolling out their own applications, taking apps and turning them into toys, and finding other ways to build a bridge between mobile devices and toys.

One of the most direct approaches is to convert either the image or the game play of actual apps. Both Mattel and Jakks Pacific are among the companies that have taken this approach.

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Mattel is planning to release a board game based on Rovio's immensely popular "Angry Birds" app this May. The board game will be called "Angry Birds Knock on Wood" and it looks the way you might imagine it would.

The pieces mimic the birds, pigs and slingshot in the game, and the object is the same: knock down the structures.

While that product mimics the actual game, there also is a line of Angry Birds plush toys, and I would suspect there will be lots of other licensed products on the way as well.

Jakks Pacific has turned another popular app, Smule's autotuning app "I Am T-Pain," into a new product, due out later this year. Jakks' $40 microphone-shaped device can record your voice and play it back with the pitch corrected or if you perfer in T-Pain's signature style.

Another approach is to incorporate mobile devices into the way the toys are operated. A good example of this is Parrot's AR Drone, a quadricopter that can be controlled by an iPod Touch, iPhone or iPad.

Players use the accelerometer inside their mobile device, and tilt the device to fly physical planes either inside or outside. The toys capture video as they fly, which is shown on the screen, and since each drone runs on its own Wi-Fi network, more than one can operate at the same time.

The company also has AR.Pursuit, a two-player game that tests a player's piloting skills.

Some toy makers are also trying their hand at developing apps that they hope will become popular in their own right.

Crayola is planning to sell "Crayola ColorStudio HD," an app for the iPad that is used with a chunky stylus called the Crayola iMarker.

Crayola says the stylus helps to simulate the feel and look of actual coloring and drawing on the iPad. The app also has animations, music and sound effects as well games and activity pages.

But one hurdle could be the product's price tag. The app will sell for $29.99. For that price, buyers will receive the digital stylus, the download of the app, periodic content updates, and built-in user tutorials.

Still, parents may need to be convinced.

Shelly Minucci, a music teacher from Forked River, N.J. and mother of a two-year-old, said her daughter already has an application that allows her to color using her finger. Minucci often looks for apps that are free or inexpensive, and have some educational value.

Crayola will need to convince parents like Minucci that the existing coloring apps don't have the same realistic feeling that theirs does.

It will be interesting to see how that plays out.

Other toymakers are looking at the youngest iPad and iPhone users and seeing a huge opportunity.

Mattel's Fisher-Price unit has created a case that can house an iPhone and protect it from baby's hands. It's called the Laugh & Learn Baby iCan Play Case, and it will be due out later this summer for $14.99.

The product was developed after the company discovered that nearly 60 percent of the mothers the company studied had given one of their devices to their child either for playtime or in a "necessary" situation (i.e., at a time when a figity child needed to be occupied while waiting.).

"They said they felt comfortable doing that, but they did say, 'I'm watching them like a hawk'," said Tina Zinter-Chahin, senior vice president of research and development at Fisher-Price.

The company thought they could solve this problem by creating a case that was ergonomically correct for little hands and had the perfect outerwear to keep the device safe, said Zinter-Chahin. What's more, the teething rings on the sides of the case and a mirror placed on its back can also entertain the child, especially in the event that the parent has to retrieve the device to take a phone call.

VTech is proposing another solution for parents: Give the kids their own device. The company will be introducing the InnoPad this fall. The tablet device is expected to retail for $79.99 and is targeted to children four to nine years old. It will have a touch screen and a number of preloaded apps. Additional software can be purchased on cartridges that are inserted into the device.

VTech is known for their educational software, and the company hopes that parents will appreciate that their programs are based on decades of research into improving children's reading and math skills in an entertaining way.

Stacked up against a tablet like Apple's iPad, InnoPad sports a low price tag, and it is designed to take the knocks and bumps children can inflict.

Children will have plenty to choose from when it comes to applications. For example, Fisher-Price also is introducing three new apps under its "Little People" brand aimed at the youngest users, and suspects there will be more to come.

Zinter-Chahin expects over time Fisher-Price will have some free apps as well as some that cost. But at the moment, the company is looking at the applications as a way to get consumers to engage with its brands.

Rival Hasbro also has a number of apps that are based on some of its most popular board games, such as Scrabble, Boggle, Risk and Monopoly. Those opportunities appear to be natural extensions of the game experience.

"You need to keep people connected wherever they are," said Reyne Rice, a toy trend expert for the Toy Industry Association. She said this means incorporating brands into applications as well as into social media sites such as Facebook.

And that's important when children want to use these devices everywhere they go.

Minucci's daughter Christina was visiting her grandmother recently and when she grew bored she didn't ask for a toy, she asked, "Nana, do you have an iPad?"

Questions? Comments? Email us at consumernation@cnbc.com

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