The world has changed dramatically since Herm Fisher met Irving Price and Helen Schelle in 1930. 

That trio formed Fisher-Price, makers of iconic toy brands such as Thomas & Friends, Power Wheels, and Laugh & Learn. The East Aurora, New York-based company, a subsidiary of Mattel since 1993, also makes the Rock-a-Stack--those colorful, donut-like plastic rings that kids can stack on a cone--not to mention the rainbow-colored xylophones that so many kids love to bang on.

Companies like Fisher-Price are in the business of exploring how the worlds of toys and parenting will change--and how they won't change--in response to emerging and nascent technologies. To research the possibilities, Fisher-Price recently partnered with Continuum, the global innovation design consultancy based in Boston. Together, they created a short concept video called "The Future of Parenting," along with a short paper explaining the thinking behind the video. The idea was to illustrate some provocative, even idealistic, possibilities, more than it was to lay out a concrete game plan for a forthcoming line of products.

For example, one avenue of thought explores how parenting will change when the teens of today--raised with data-providing devices such as Fitbit and the Jawbone Up--begin raising kids of their own. Is this a generation that will desire data in all of their child-rearing products? If so, then perhaps the product appearing at the 2:20 mark of the video (embedded below) will appeal to them. It's a smart feeding tray, capable of identifying the food you serve your child--and mapping out how much of it your child ought to eat, based on age and weight.

One aspect of the video that could seem disconcerting is its sheer number of holograms. If you interpreted the video as a concrete vision of the future of parenting, you couldn't be blamed for fearing holograms will take over your house and haunt your waking hours as a mom or dad. Fisher-Price head of design Mark Zeller tells Fast Company that the holograms are a way of illustrating a technological forecast: That the future will not be screen-based. Instead, displays will become part of the native environment.

One possible benefit to holograms is their potential to give old-school toys the capability of personalizing responses, depending on the age and development of the child playing with the old-school toy. For instance, at the 1:30 mark of the film, you'll see a small child playing with a digital-age version of the Rock-a-Stack. "The Rock-a-Stack recognizes that the youngest child is playing with the toy, and it knows that he has never been able to stack all the rings onto the toy," explains Kevin Young, senior vice president of product experience at Continuum. "So, when he places all the rings on the toy for the first time, it rewards him by showing him a picture of a bird that he noticed through the window earlier that day."

Of course, you might ask yourself: What's wrong with old-school toys without the special effects? Lego, by all counts, remains a thriving entity. And studies point to the myriad creativity benefits to children who use their decidedly unconnected Legos to play in an unstructured fashion--as opposed to using Lego sets that come with bells and whistles and precise step-by-step instructions. In addition, recent research demonstrates that glowing and beeping toys can potentially hinder language development, compared with old-school puzzles and blocks.

Entering their collaboration, both Fisher-Price and Continuum were aware of this technology paradox--and how parents, too, have to grapple with it. "On one side, [parents] know that they should limit screen time, and the American Academy of Pediatrics offers guidance on its recommendations for daily screen time," says Young. "On the other side, technology can be wonderfully engaging and provide excellent educational opportunities for children."

One potential way to address the paradox was by envisioning children's products that seamlessly--and invisibly--incorporate learning and developmental technology. Ideally, the technology would be so seamless--so invisible--that it wouldn't interfere with a parent or child's desire to play with the toys.

Whether that ideal can become a reality, only time will tell. As Fast Company notes, the technology to make such holograms seem seamless "requires loads of sensor technology that's only on the cusp of the mass market today." And part of the reason Fisher-Price made this video was "to entice partners who could make the possibilities come alive."

 

 

 

Published on: Mar 24, 2016