Family & Lifestyle

Barbie Girl in a Distanced, Digital World

Overview Classic toys have made a comeback in 2020 and may top wishlists for the holiday season. How has toy industry powerhouse Mattel made changes in the last decades to meet evolving expectations?


 

Just in time for the holiday season, classic toys are seeing a revitalization in sales. The sudden onset of increased stay-at-home time and toy boredom are seeing families reach for old-school favorites.

These nostalgic games are providing families with screen-free opportunities to entertain themselves. But throughout the years, consumer expectations and mass digitization have fueled changes in these toys many of us loved, creating new versions of these classic that now include aspects of technology.

CES® veteran and Consumer Technology Association (CTA)® member Mattel, a toy brand giant, have found various ways to develop innovative products and programs — even catering to recent challenges — that resonate with the new tech-savvy generation.


Life in Plastic – and Machine Learning

Mattel’s culturally iconic toy Barbie has been known to change with the times, including diverse interests, careers, diversity and more to keep up with cultural concerns. HELLO Barbie is among the toys that have incorporated technology directly. The doll uses machine learning to have one-on-one conversations, programmed with 8000 possible dialogues that can be used to interact with the child based on things the child says. Artificial intelligence capabilities allow HELLO Barbie to remember responses and customize future interactions.

Other Mattel classics that have been tech-enhanced include Pictionary — now with augmented reality — and Hot Wheels — which now includes implanted chips that allow kids to measure speeds and complete virtual challenges.

Embedded in toys directly, technology has helped the Mattel team create interactive experiences that give new life to cross-generational classics.


A Digital Layer to Tech-Free Toys

But beyond toy-only experiences, technology can also play a more nuanced, hand-in-hand role with toys.

What I’ve learned is putting technology in a plastic housing and calling it a toy does not make it a toy,” said Sven Gerjets, Mattel’s chief technology officer, at CES 2019.

Non-connected toys could still inspire kids through technology in different ways. The no-tech Robotics Engineer Barbie, Gerjets noted, is one example. Paired with an educational platform that teaches kids to program games, the Barbie, though purely tech-free at its core, still engaged with a tech-enabled world.

“Toys are really things that parents are making bets on,” Gerjets said. “Parents aren’t going to make a bet on technology.”

Instead of changing the interaction with the toys, then, Mattel has only added a new digital layer. Kids are still able to enjoy the same experiences with these timeless toys in ways their parents loved before them, and engage with tech as a bonus.

Beyond the games themselves, tech has enabled Mattel to create and offer online hubs and digital resources. During the coronavirus pandemic, Mattel’s digital playroom offers kid-friendly videos and other ideas, and has encouraged parents to connect through the hashtag #KeepPlaying.

Mattel’s nuanced approach to tech-enhanced play has allowed the toy powerhouse to grow and adapt while staying true to its mission of empowering kids to explore the wonder of play.

 

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