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Learning Through Play Boosts High-Tech and Upcoming AR Toy Ranges

With nurturing innovation among the young now a clear priority across the mainland, educational and creatively inspiring toys took pole position at this year's China International Trade Fair for Toys and Preschool Educational Resources.

Photo: Racing ahead: China’s toy market could be worth more than RMB60 billion by the end of 2016.
Racing ahead: China's toy market could be worth more than RMB60 billion by the end of 2016.
Photo: Racing ahead: China’s toy market could be worth more than RMB60 billion by the end of 2016.
Racing ahead: China's toy market could be worth more than RMB60 billion by the end of 2016.

High-tech was the order of the day at the recent China International Trade Fair for Toys and Preschool Educational Resources, an event more commonly known as the China Toy Fair. Aside from the ever-looming shadows of the many drones that flitted across the hall, 2016 also seems to be the year that Augmented Reality (AR) is finally ready to go mass market, a development at least partly spurred by a new generation of do-it-yourself smart app design technologies.

Commenting on the overall mood of this year's event, Li Xu, Marketing Manager for Shanghai Le Genius, a subsidiary of the Les Enphants Group, said: "High-tech is now ubiquitous in the mainland toy market. This is partly in response the changed preferences of kids and partly because parents see such toys as a means of nurturing their children's technology skills."

According to one industry study, this year the mainland toy market will be worth some RMB60 billion (US$8.9 billion). Chinese customs figures show that in the first eight months of 2016, the mainland's exports of baby and children's products (including toys) reached US$34.37 billion, a year-on-year growth of 3.84%. Over the same period, the total value of the imports of baby and children's products (including toys) into China amounted to $1.37 billion, up 66.34% year-on-year.

Nurtured by government backing, mass entrepreneurship and mass innovation have become something of a national obsession in China, with state schools particularly keen to foster students' more innovative tendencies. In line with this, Li says a number of schools are now actively prompting his company to produce the kind of toys that fuel creativity.

Explaining the role that toy companies can play in this new innovation-led economy, Li said: "Society now expects that the younger generation should have a wide range of abilities, some of which parents have little knowledge of. It is incumbent, then, for companies like ours to stay ahead of the market and help point parents in the right direction."

DIY Apps Nurture Programming Skills

The ubiquity of the internet and the rise of open-source hardware has seen the 'maker culture' (a.k.a. 'the DIY culture') blossom in China. At present, an increasing number of toys are incorporating DIY elements as a way of propagating these ideals. Typically, such toys have a focus on spurring creativity and look to help children better understand technological essentials and scientific principles through play. In the future, it is expected that high-tech toys will take an app-led approach, similar to the way that the smartphone sector has developed.

Photo: S4A smart building blocks.
S4A smart building blocks.
Photo: S4A smart building blocks.
S4A smart building blocks.
Photo: Learning through play with construction toys.
Learning through play with construction toys.
Photo: Learning through play with construction toys.
Learning through play with construction toys.

An early instance of this came courtesy of the S4A (Scratch for Arduino) smart building blocks set, a remote-controlled interactive toy produced by the Chongqing-based Acer Group. Explaining how the set worked, Sun Liming, a Marketing Planner with the company, said: "The S4A software allows programming to be done by simply rearranging building blocks. This programming is then transmitted to a control box and then used to remotely guide a model car around a series of obstacles."

According to Sun, this toy is suitable for children aged nine and above. In total, more than 40 different operational programmes can be created using the building blocks. Along the way, any child playing with the toy almost unconsciously learns many of the basics related to programming, physics, mathematics and design. Sun said: "This way of incorporating learning into play helps foster creativity and nurtures a love of innovation in very young children."

AR Technology

Photo: A new reality: AR products on the rise.
A new reality: AR products on the rise.
Photo: A new reality: AR products on the rise.
A new reality: AR products on the rise.

This year, AR products were on offer from more than 20 different manufacturers. Applications for the system included alphabet and animal recognition, storytelling, graffiti interaction and virtual social networking. Across all of these varied uses, one element remained common – the use of technology to seamlessly integrate real and virtual information, creating wholly new sensory experiences.

One of the true pioneers in this sector is Yangshu Wenhua, a Shanghai-based developer of child-focussed interactive smart hardware and AR education products. This year, the company was promoting its Magnifier NEO system, a round handheld smart device designed specifically for children. Utilising its built-in AR high-definition camera, the NEO has the facility to capture images from the natural world and render them in a dynamic 3D style.

The company is now jointly developing content for the NEO in association with a number of children's-book publishers and museums. This has resulted in many famous illustrations and renowned works of art coming 'alive' under the NEO lens. The built-in interactive encyclopedia in the system then answers any questions that arise, while also offering a number of other functions, including voice and text recognition.

Photo: Parentally preferred: Creative toys.
Parentally preferred: Creative toys.
Photo: Parentally preferred: Creative toys.
Parentally preferred: Creative toys.
Photo: Force to be reckoned with: Star Wars toys.
Force to be reckoned with: Star Wars toys.
Photo: Force to be reckoned with: Star Wars toys.
Force to be reckoned with: Star Wars toys.

According to Digi-Capital, a California-based digital investment consultancy, the AR market will eventually be worth more than US$100 billion. Acknowledging the growing importance of the technology, Liang Mei, President of the China Toy and Juvenile Products Association, said: "Although 2016 marks only the very beginning for AR in the educational-toys sector, we expect exponential growth in the very near future."

Droning On and On

Drones, of course, are now a comparatively well-established part of the toy industry. This, though, does not mean that there is any shortage of innovation among manufacturers in the sector.

Photo: Silverlit’s SkyEye FPV.
Silverlit's SkyEye FPV.
Photo: Silverlit’s SkyEye FPV.
Silverlit's SkyEye FPV.

This year, for instance, Silverlit Toys Manufactory, a Hong Kong-based drone manufacturer, chose the fair to launch its SkyEye FPV, an outdoor helicopter equipped with a real-time camera. Registered as a toy, this drone requires no licence and has an operational range of up to 50 metres. Lightweight and measuring only 33cm long and 14cm high, the helicopter's video stream feeds to a pair of first-person view (FPV) goggles that allows the operator to see everything the unit's cameras see in real-time 3D.

Miao Lu, Special Correspondent, Shanghai

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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