Manufacturing News

Transforming toys into high-tech products

Can a six-year-old child understand and apply the knowledge of electrical circuits? Yes, if he/she gets to play with a high-tech toy designed by a Shanghai-based company.

Linking up the "electronic bricks", which include a power source, a switch, a resistor and other components with a conducting wire, children could learn the basic principle and knowledge about circuits during the process of assembly.

"Marvelous Circuit" is the latest intelligent toy launched by Shanghai Putao Technology Co Ltd.

Thanks to the application of image-recognition technology, children could also clearly see the motion trails of electrons in the connected circuit by just scanning their completed works using an app.

Founded in 2014, Putao is engaged in the development of hi-tech toys and apps for children aged between 3 and 12.

Chinese toy manufacturers are speeding up efforts to apply the most-advanced technologies, such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality, augmented reality, image recognition and big data, to the intelligent toy market.

"The intelligent toy industry is on the verge of a tipping point. With the development of technology, intelligence has been incorporated into traditional toys, which will become hi-tech products now," said Sheng Xiaofeng, chief product officer at Putao.

Moreover, most of the young parents now were born in the 1980s. They have a high degree of acceptance of technical products. They pay more attention to cultivating children's qualities, said Sheng.

"Children these days tend to use many hi-tech products such as tablets and smartphones, so they accept intelligent toys easily," Sheng said.

China's second-child policy, which was officially implemented from Jan 1, is expected to further stimulate the growth of the toy market.

Sheng said the company will release an intelligent hardware product this summer. It will be equipped with various sensors to help children explore the world. By the end of this year, the company's portfolio will have more than 20 types of intelligent toys with a focus on wearable devices, sensors and apps.

By downloading the relevant app, parents could also collect the data about the time and frequency of their children's use of the toys.

Although the intelligent toy industry is still in the early stage of development, a number of domestic and foreign companies are tapping into the field, including internet giant Tencent Holdings Ltd, Danish toy giant Lego S/A and Guangdong Alpha Animation and Culture Co Ltd.

In January, Alpha Animation and Culture launched a robot that could listen, watch, think and accompany the children. It is equipped with the Turing OS developed by Turing Robot, the first Chinese company engaged in research in the commercialization of artificial intelligence, and possesses the capacities of speech recognition, semantic analysis, emotion, visual recognition and self-learning ability.

In March, Tencent released its first self-developed children's intelligent entertainment product, which combines a virtual game with physical toys. Other companies are also aiming at the children's market to develop drones, virtual-reality glasses and augmented-reality toys.

According to Euromonitor International, a market research firm, the sales value of the Chinese toys and games industry has risen from 46.3 billion yuan ($7.05 billion) in 2010 to 74.4 billion yuan in 2014, with an average annual growth rate of 12.6 percent. The figure is expected to surpass 100 billion yuan in 2017.

The intelligent toy market is growing rapidly, and the most advanced technologies are seen reinvigorating the traditional toy market.

It is estimated that the compound growth rate of global intelligent toy market will reach 35 percent for the 2014-18 period.

Makeblock, the main brand of Shenzhen Maker Works Technology Co Ltd, is another good example of success in the toy market. It is a robotics construction platform that consists of more than 400 types of metal building blocks, electronic modules and software tools.

Founded in 2012, the company provides one-stop robotics construction solutions so that users could build any robots they can imagine by using various mechanical parts and electronic modules.

They are also able to connect Makeblock parts with Lego blocks. The products are priced from $99 to $799.

Wang Jianjun, CEO and founder of MakeBlock, said: "Makeblock is an open platform, compatible with many other parts and systems, and we help people turn their ideas into reality.

"Many tech firms have seen the huge potential in the intelligent toy market and increased investment in the field. It is good for consumers as they have more choices, and healthy competition will push forward the progress of the industry."

Wang said he is optimistic about the prospects for intelligent toys. In his view, the intelligent toys could harness children's programming capability and logical thinking ability, let the children enjoy the pleasure of creation and make education interesting.

"We will continue to exploit the education market and launch educational robots for harnessing students' latent abilities."

Industry sources estimated that the size of the domestic market for intelligent toys will reach 100 billion yuan by 2020.

However, the hardware technologies have to be improved. The current technologies are still in their infancy and no enterprise owns a dominant position, industry insiders said. Furthermore, some cutting-edge technologies might not be suitable for intelligent toys.

The barrier for AR technology is relatively low. AR technology could be easily applied to toys, but VR technology, which often needs a heavy helmet, is still not mature.

"The technical barriers to hardware are not high, but we should pay attention to applications and development of software in the future," said Tony Li, director of Shenzhen-based Maison Capital.

Li expects more intelligent products in the areas of nursery and primary education as technologies get advanced.

The scope for progress comes from the fact that domestic standards still lag those in Europe and the United States. For instance, Lego boasts a complete range of toy systems and high brand visibility.

Sheng said: "We will make efforts to improve our offerings in the intelligent robot field. However, at present, the robot lacks application sceneries and content.

"We should strengthen the research and development of software and build up rich content. We hope children could obtain more knowledge by communicating with the robots."

Sheng said the company will also focus on children's health.

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