Smart Technology for Toys Can Revolutionize How Children Learn and Develop

August 11, 2015

10:00 am

Technology is now revolutionizing an industry that was long one of the most resistant to its wiles: the wonderful world of toys. Spurred by smart technology, interactive voice, and adaptive learning powered by IBM Watson, the newest toys have the potential to completely change how kids learn academically and develop social behaviors.

The key question is: are truly smart toys a revolution, or a fad? The first smart toys, such as the original Furby, were all the rage for a short period when they came out; before of course devolving into screaming matches between exasperated parents and the toys which, in that elusive hunt for realism, didn’t actually have a true OFF button. The newer, smarter versions, particularly the recently released smart Hello Barbie, Seebo’s software, and Cognitoy’s smart dinosaur, look like a different breed entirely.

How is today’s smart technology for toys different from the electronic and educational toys of the past?

CogniToys are able to interact with a child via speech – through playful dialogue they elicit likes/dislikes and use this information to give more specific, age appropriate content that is tailored for THAT child. The team at CogniToys believes this approach will make the toy much more fun, much more engaging, and as the child develops, the content is adjusted accordingly. The tech utilizes IBM Watson as a a mechanism to deliver Q/A styled questions quickly and accurately.

“Watson gives us a huge advantage as we grow our database of content and allows us to deliver these answers quickly in a method that resembles actual conversation,” said Donald Coolige, CEO of Cognitoys.

Smart toys can also be specialized, making them useful for helping educate and treat children with certain rare issues and illnesses.

Sproutel, a Boston company in my own portfolio, focuses on this, deploying smart technology to teach children how to manage their type one diabetes.

“Children naturally learn through play, opening the door for smart toys as vehicles to educate. Toys provide experience driven, hands on, learning which lends itself perfectly to teaching children how to manage chronic illness – such as asthma and type 1 diabetes,” said Aaron Horowitz, CEO of Sproutel.

Certainly, the smart toy revolution has its detractors. In particular, some psychologists frown upon smart toys, considering them superfluous to childhood development.

“I’m an associate professor of cognitive development [and] I wouldn’t recommend them to parents,” Graham Schafer, associate professor at the University of Reading, told the Guardian in a July 16 article. But, smart toys are here to stay. The only questions is, how radically will they change the way children learn in the future?

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I am an entrepreneur, angel investor, and early-stage VC living and working in New York City.