14 Jan 2005
Innovations(HKTDC Toys & Games , Vol 01,2005)
"We knew we had a winner on our hands," laughs chief operating officer Eric Lau, "and we were delighted when more than 50 reporters showed up - everyone from CNN and Fox News to Time magazine. All the positive comments helped us sell 1.5 million units last year, and I believe we will match that in 2005."
Established in 1982, by brothers Peter and Richard Yanofsky, WowWee was originally a development vehicle for Peter Yanofsky's inventions and designs that he sold on to toy companies rather than invest directly in the manufacturing and sales effort.
During the Asian financial crisis, when it seemed that the market for good ideas had dried up, Lau says he urged a change of direction for WowWee. "Convinced we had great product ideas, I suggested we go ahead, take the risk and do things ourselves," he recalls.
The firm quickly established close working relationships with Chinese mainland factories with good reputations for quality, and began to produce its own toys. The result, Lau says, has been "at least one major success per year since 1997".
Operating under the motto, "Anything else is just a toy", WowWee takes its inspiration from the worlds of aerospace, the military, extreme sports and even cutting-edge science.
Robosapien, for example, was produced with the assistance of robotics physicist Mark Tilden, a consultant for NASA's Los Alamos National Laboratory and a pioneer of biomorphic robotics.
Tilden's work had caught the attention of Peter Yanofsky. "We emailed him asking if he would be interested in working with us," says Lau. "He then flew to Hong Kong to exchange ideas with Peter and on to the mainland to view the factories."
Tilden's first project with WowWee was the B.I.O. Bugs line, which sold respectably but fell slightly flat in a US market depressed by 9/11. Undaunted, Peter Yanofsky suggested another idea.
"Peter asked Mark if he could come up with an affordable robot - the point being that most commercially-available robots were selling for thousands of US dollars and so were hardly typical consumer products," says Lau.
"We spent more than two-and-a-half years developing the robot, with the design and look being developed by the WowWee team and the mechanism and internal elements done by Tilden," Lau explains. "The result was the Robosapien - a robot with 67 pre-programmed functions that retails for about US$100."
After testing on different age groups, it was eventually concluded that the "toy" was suitable for kids aged anywhere between three and 80.
"Young children enjoy the simple demonstration functions, like Robosapien's kung fu and dance routines, while adults enjoy tinkering with more sophisticated functions," says Lau.
"The more technically advanced can pre-programme Robosapien in thousands of different ways," he adds. "Teenagers have modified its use to download MP3s, or use it as a radio or an alarm clock, while scientists have increased Robosapien's brain as our technology allows them to change the microprocessors."
Apart from selling in huge numbers in North America, Europe (the UK alone has taken about 200,000 units) and Australia, Robosapien has picked up more than 20 awards including the Grand Award in the 2004 Hong Kong Awards for Industry.
Lau says the company has been unable to keep track of all the honours showered upon its robotic offspring, but says that recognition in Hong Kong was particularly satisfying.
"As a Hong Kong-based company, the Hong Kong Awards for Industry is very important to us, even more so given this was the first time we had entered the competition," he observes.
Development of the next generation of Robosapien is well advanced, and Lau expects to be shipping these more sophisticated units by September. "The second generation will be taller and more solid," he says. "The current version has seven servo motors, while the new one will have 14. It will cost more, too, but there are many more features."
Lau says the new robot will walk more like human beings. "If it falls down, it will be able to get up by itself. It will also be able to limbo walk, do push-ups and sit-ups and see, hear and respond accordingly."
Whereas the company used to produce up to 20 different new products a year, WowWee intends concentrating on a smaller number of high quality lines as it is confident of continuing to command the attention of the most important buyers.
"We do unique products and we will expand our R&D resources to maintain our brand," Lau says. "Our reputation is for innovation, and we're successful because we have a strong image in the industry."
WowWee also scored with its Animaltronics and Dinotronics lines of microprocessor-driven moving animal and dinosaur figurines. In addition, it broke new ground and sales records with its remote-controlled cars, Blastmaster water weapons and Air Surfer remote-controlled model aircraft.
Clearly, technology is bringing toys such as robots closer to the real world.
WRITTEN BY ROBERT PIERCE