Toys are serious fun

9 June 2013 by Steve Blum
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Boys prefer helicopters?

What might be the most revolutionary technology poking its nose into the market right now is just a toy. NeuroSky makes a headset that controls devices by reading your brainwaves. Their first shot at a product was a tiara with cat ears that reacted to the wearer’s mood. A big hit with girls. A helicopter for the boys followed.

There’s a long and proud tradition of breakthrough technology getting its first consumer foothold in toy stores. Last year marked the fortieth anniversary of Pong. It began in arcades game but quickly became a home game.

Pong was the launching pad for video games, personal computers and, after a few early adopters forgot to turn it off, screen savers. It was four years ahead of the Apple I. Its descendants – like the Atari 400, my first personal computer – were early Silicon Valley market leaders.

Breakthrough technologies first move through a toy phase because no one is really sure what to do with it or is willing to rely on unstable products for anything except a moment’s entertainment. Toys grab our interest. A lot of the value comes from figuring out what to do with them.

When Wham-O (another Californian garage start-up) introduced the Frisbee, there was nothing much to do with it except toss it back and forth. It caught on because the heavy lifting of product development was done for free. And for fun.

Toys drive technology because the cost of failure is low and the intrinsic value is high. Companies like NeuroSky, Sphero and Road Narrows are learning while they make a living. That’s how you get a head start on the land rush into completely new industries.