Tech Toys at CES: More Than Meets the Eye

By  |  January 16, 2014, 10:39 AM  |  Techonomy Exclusive

Spending time in the various Vegas casinos alongside last week’s CES, I was reminded that play isn’t just for children. But how we play in our youth has the potential to mold our long-term interests and even influence our career choices. For many, carrying the playfulness of childhood into adulthood is a sign of good health and a robust imagination.

As I approached the Orbotix booth, I saw a large group of adults itching to control a small translucent ball as it rolled through a series of tunnels, ramps, water hazards, and other obstacles—all using their smartphones. The product, Sphero, looks at first like a toy, but beneath its polycarbonate shell lives a complex set of sensors, LEDs, a Bluetooth radio, wireless charging capability, and other technology that enables users to control and program its behavior: a Bluetooth connected, data gathering round robot for $129.99.

The Sphero 2.

The Sphero 2.

Orbotix CEO Paul Berberian, told me his company’s philosophy is based on “the power of play.” Much like the notoriety that Goldieblox has garnered with its updated version of pink and purple tinker toys aimed at “inspiring the next generation of female engineers,” Sphero wants to get kids to think creatively about computer programming and robotics. While Goldieblox takes a less technological approach to exposing girls to engineering principles, Sphero delivers an intuitive smartphone app that gives users a tool set that not only controls Sphero in real time, but also allows people to create their own strings of commands so they can operate it autonomously.

“Teaching kids to program is not about boys and girls, nor is it only for kids interested in math and science,” says Berberian. “It’s about allowing them to express their creativity and to do it in a way that is fun and unthreatening.”

The Parrot AR Drone 2.0.

The Parrot AR Drone 2.0.

A few booths away from Orbotix, Paris-based Parrot was displaying its impressive line of drones. These are not the intimidating ones Jeff Bezos claims to be considering for Amazon delivery, but smaller, propeller-driven flying devices sold at places like Toys”R”Us, Brookstone, and of course Amazon. Some of them come with a camera and can capture and stream HD video or be outfitted with sensors to collect various forms of data—all controlled from your smartphone.

While the future commercial applications of such drones may be limitless, Parrot’s CMO Nicolas Halftermeyer says the company has been approached to develop a number of different applications for their drones. “As a result,” says Halftermeyer, “we have made an open software developer kit available for enthusiasts to explore and create new uses for our quadricopter.”

While both companies have built technically complex devices, simplicity of human interaction and user interfaces is likely to be key to their success. Companies like Orbotix and Parrot are creating  innovative products and services that expose children and adults alike to technology that was once only accessible to seasoned engineers. It’s all building a foundation of educational play that will likely impact many generations to come.

You can watch some of Josh Kampel’s experiences in Vegas and at CES in a video produced using tools from our partner, Magisto.

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