Tomorrow’s Toys: Where Technology Meets Imagination
Chris Heatherly, Disney’s vice president for toys and consumer electronics, in front of Toymorrow team toy concept sketches.
The Toymorrow team is the Disney Consumer Products’ internal Skunk Works, a group of inventors, designers, engineers, researchers and product development experts that brainstorms and develops new products and product concepts centered around the convergence of toys and technology. This cross-functional adhocracy meets monthly to dream up new ways of connecting technology and play.
The team’s cheerleader and taskmaster is Chris Heatherly, Disney’s vice president for toys and consumer electronics. Although at the heart of an enterprise immersed in technology, he is sensitive to the role of technology in kid’s lives and how it augments their play.
When technology in toys fails, he told TechNewsDaily, it’s “because they try to do the play for the kid.”
“The most powerful technology kids have is their imagination,” he said. “Technology needs to play second-fiddle to that. Technology is the easy part. The hard part is finding applications that work with a kid’s imagination. How do you find technology that makes that better?”
What that means is that you don’t slap on technology like a magical Band-Aid that will put a smile on a kid’s face. Today, said Heatherly, kids are surrounded by the richest broth of technology imaginable.
“They’re growing up with tons of technology in the house,” he said. “LCD screens, supercomputers, web cams built into everything. How do we take advantage of the technology you already have in your home?”
In the past, Healtherly said, technology was often rejected by toymakers because it looked too expensive or complicated. That’s no longer the case. He believes there’s something akin to Moore’s Law – the idea that computer chips have doubled in power about every two years – that applies to technology in toys and is driving down the cost of integrating technology.
To see that law in action and capitalize on it, though, requires long-term vision.
“We’re looking several years out,” he said. “It’s important that we look down the road.”
More capable toys
It helps, he added, that Disney is able to call on a rich talent pool. The Toymorrow team is able to call on Disney Research labs in Zurich and at Carnegie-Mellon University, as well as Walt Disney Imagineering, the company’s design and development wing.
“No other toy company has those kinds of resources,” Heatherly said.
The adoption of technology in toys is keeping pace with the adoption of technology by society at large. There has long been a trickle-down effect where children emulate the technology they see their parents using. Technology is still trickling down, said Heatherly. But now it’s trickling faster.
“The adoption curve is speeding up,” he said. “Technology is accelerating. Adoption by kids is accelerating. And co-use of the same devices by both parents and children at different times of day is accelerating.”
What’s not changing, though, is the nature of play.
“We’re not creating a new way to play,” Heatherly said. “Play patterns exist independent of technology. There are not a lot of new play patterns emerging. We’ve had dolls and action figures forever.”
It’s just that today's dolls and action figures can do more than they could before. New natural human interface technologies such as touch screens, motion-sensing accelerometers, computer vision and the ability to recognize gestures make toys much more kid-friendly.
The next frontier for technology and toys, Heatherly believes, is the integration of physical and virtual play, robotics and artificial intelligence. The goal is to bring characters to life in new ways.
“Disney is a company that’s all about characters,” he said. “Is there an easier way to make a character come to life?”
Already, he says, the technology exists to enable an action figure to have a reasonable conversation with a kid. How can you add intelligence and interactivity to that figure to make it an autonomous, spontaneous, interactive character? Heatherly believes it will be possible sooner rather than later to turn action figures into playtime doppelgangers.
“What’s more cool than being able to be your own action figure?” he asked.