Interactive robots and gizmos that tackle the basics of coding, artificial intelligence and programming are making it to the top of holiday gift lists for kids this year.
“It’s a big trend,” says Michelle Liem, toy industry analyst at market research firm NPD Group Canada. “Parents are aware of how much technology continues to evolve (so they are) wanting to purchase products for their kids to help them learn about programming and coding.”
She says the robotic and interactive playmates category is one of the fastest growing areas in toys, climbing 22 per cent year-to-date between Jan. and Oct. 2017 versus the same period in 2016.
“Obviously there are still toys being bought just for enjoyment,” she says. “But I do think now because we have so much technology, you’re seeing more of these technologically advanced toys come out that can really help kids learn, even at an early age.”
Liem breaks down the top-selling robo-toys on holiday gift lists this year:
Lego Boost – $200
“I saw this at the toy fair back in February and thought: I can’t wait for this to come out – I’m definitely getting one for me and my kids,” says Liem.
Designed for kids aged seven and up, the Lego Boost is the first from the brand to allow kids to bring their creations to life. Dubbed a “creative toolbox,” the Boost comes with sensors, motors and an app where kids can learn to program their creation – which takes the shape of one of five models: Vernie the Robot, Frankie the Cat, the Guitar 4000, the Multi-Tool Rover 4, and an Autobuilder, which can be programmed to build tiny Lego creations.
The kit is app-forward, meaning your kid needs to go through the tutorial, building a starter vehicle, learning to pair with Bluetooth and getting familiar with the app and hardware before moving on to coding. The programming side of things is made up of drag-and-drop modules that evolve based on the type of creation your kid creates. For instance, with Vernie, you can program the robot to dance and spin when you clap.
Spinmaster Meccano M.A.X. Robot – $160
Recommended for kids 10 and up, the Meccano M.A.X Robot taps into the imagination of budding engineers, combining artificial intelligence with customizable programming. Using step-by-step instructions, kids build the robot from scratch using 332 pieces and Meccano’s unique tools. Once he’s set up and the base knowledge is uploaded to his “brain” via USB, M.A.X. uses motors to move and an infrared scanner to interact and avoid obstacles.
The real hook is M.A.X.’s ability to learn. The robot will ask your kid a few questions when first started up, but over time he learns from his interactions, evolving into a toy unique to your child. The robot has a built-in gaming platform and can be taught the names of different objects around the house.
Sphero Sprk+ – $110
From Sphero, the makers of the cute BB-8 app-controlled Star Wars droid, comes the Sprk+. Designed to teach kids the basics of programming, the Sprk+ uses a visual “block-based building interface to transform ideas into code.” It can move on both land and in the water and using the Lightning Lab app, allows kids to program their Sprk+ to do a number of activities including navigate a maze or program a painting.
The toy transcends the basics, allowing more experienced programmers to use the text-based code viewer to program complex commands. It has a 30-metre range with Bluetooth, programmable LED lights, gyroscope, and accelerometer. It also taps into a social platform where kids can share their creations and collaborate with others in the maker community.
Dash Robot by Wonder Workshop – $200
Wonder Workshop’s Dash robot takes a broader approach to programming, offering a series of apps geared towards kids aged six and up. Each app unlocks different capabilities for the bot ranging from Wonder, a picture-based coding language easy to understand at a young age but sophisticated enough to create detailed behaviours; Blockly, which brings advanced coding into the mix through projects and puzzles that explore concepts like variables, conditionals and events; Path, a fundamentals-focused app for movement; Xylo, which allows kids to compose music; and Go, which focuses on the hardware side like Dash’s lights, sounds, and sensors.
The robot has all sorts of add-ons like a launcher (to hurl projectiles at siblings and anyone else not paying attention), a building brick connector so it can be used with Lego, a bulldozer bar, bunny ears, and the aforementioned xylophone.
Liem says she expects the trend to continue with more parents buying toys for their kids that are both fun and educational. Robots have proven the perfect medium.
“(It’s) the future – where jobs might be when our kids grow up and get into the workplace,” she says. “If you know how to code, program, and work with technology, you can’t go wrong.”