Smart toys for clever kids

Sensors animate toy robots in innovative ways for playing and learning

By Antoinette Price

Over the centuries, toys have evolved from dolls of stone, terracotta, wax or wood depicting humans, to today’s animated toy robots which can walk, jump, roll, spin, flip, kick, pick up objects, dance, talk and respond to certain voice commands. Unlike the doll that repeated a few simple phrases with the pull of a cord, or the wind-up robot that shuffled across the floor until it ran down, these modern toys are sophisticated and require more active users.

Electric toy robot
Robots come in all shapes and sizes

Technology makes intelligent, safe toys

It’s amazing to think that the first programmable humanoid robots – a group of musicians playing instruments for entertaining royal guests – were apparently created by inventor and engineer Ismail Al-Jazari of Turkey as far back as 1206. 

Hundreds of years later, the evolution of technology has resulted in today’s electric powered, toy robots, (using batteries, power cords or connecting to other powered products like TVs or computers), which are increasingly intelligent for their young, tech-savvy consumers. Controlled remotely through smart phone apps or even generating their own wireless connection up to a certain distance, some have built-in augmented reality (AR) features.

When we buy a product, we expect it to be of the highest quality, function correctly and be safe. This is even more so the case for children’s products. The work of the IEC contributes towards the safety aspects of toys that use electricity in any form and on the transformers and batteries used with them through International Standards prepared by different Technical Committees (TCs). It also covers testing and verification, for example with the IEC Conformity Assessment Systems, whose Members certify the safety, performance and interoperability.

  • IEC TC 21: Secondary cells and batteries, prepares product Standards for rechargeable batteries, typically found in many children toys.
  • IEC TC 110: Electronic display devices, prepares International Standards for electronic displays, such as those used in touch-screen tablets for children, as well as smart phones.
  • IEC TC 61: Safety of household and similar electrical appliances, deals with the electrical safety of toys intended for use by children aged under 14. Products covered include construction and experimental sets, toys which replicate the functions of appliances used by adults, such as toy electric irons or computers, but also toys which use electricity for secondary functions such as lasers or light-emitting diodes.
  • IEC TC 96: Transformers, reactors, power supply units, and combinations thereof, covers the electrical, thermal and mechanical safety aspects of transformers and power supplies for toys. This comprises protection against electric shock, overloads and short-circuits.
  • Today’s toy robots come to life thanks to an array of sensor-based technology, which can measure physical properties, such as the distance between objects, the presence of light and sound frequency, an object's presence or absence or size and shape. In the case of toys, sensors are particularly popular, because they fit easily into tiny robotics and make robot toys possible.
    IEC TC 47: Semiconductor devices, prepares International Standards for the design, manufacture, use and reuse of sensors and microelectromechanical devices which are also used in innovative robot toys.

Global systems for quality and safety

The IEC also ensures the safety and quality of electric powered toys. IECEE, the IEC System for Conformity testing and Certification of Electrotechnical Equipment and Components plays an important role in the certification of electric toys. This System provides reassurance for users and consumers that a product is reliable and meets expectations in terms of performance, safety, durability.

IECQ, the IEC Quality Assessment System for Electronic Components offers electronic toy manufacturers a solution for sourcing safe and certified hazardous substance-free electronic components.

Blurring the lines between playing and learning

As smart technology and the Internet of Things develops, toy robots offer more than just play time, they can also engage children in learning. New apps and games deal with literacy, mathematics, science knowledge, which look at how to improve critical thinking. Some activities can involve the physical building and programming of the robots, which teaches creative science, engineering and the computational thinking that is part of programming. In a world where so many daily activities use some kind of hard or software, even if simple at first, this kind of learning can lead to more complex character-based coding.

When it comes to drawing children in and keeping their attention throughout the learning process, the actual hardware seems to be quite an important factor for educational technology. Using the fun and entertaining aspects of toys in combination with software learning elements, educational robots end up looking like mini humanoids, boxes on wheels, cubes, spheres, Lego pieces, drones and more.

As with any smart devices, smart toys which are connected to the Internet via app, wi-fi or other methods, could potentially be hacked and children’s personal data stolen. Every day we read about companies that experience cybersecurity breaches. This happened recently to a company which provides downloads of apps, games, music and books for its toys. The IEC takes the threat of cybersecurity very seriously. Several parts of the organization work towards finding solutions, including:

  • A Subcommittee of ISO/IEC Joint Technical Committee (JTC) 1/SC 27: IT security techniques, set up by the IEC and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) works on International Standards concerning security for information technology.
  • The IEC Advisory Committee on Security (ACSEC) also deals with information security and data privacy matters.

The future for toys looks smart

It comes as no surprise that with the advent of the Internet of Things, the electric powered toys industry is booming. According to a survey on the Statista statistics portal, the global smart toys industry revenue is projected to increase from USD 1,3 billion in 2013 to USD 7,4 billion in 2018.

At the forthcoming CES 2016, the category ‘Kids play and FamilyTech Summit’ will cover areas such as:

  • Kids: physical meets digital – where new experiential play places are designed to let kids gather, explore, and collaborate in new ways.
  • Robotics: kid's best friend – showing the latest functions of a new breed of robot which is becoming a kid’s best friend and teacher.
  • Parenting tools – how technology is changing parenting and learning.
  • Annual KAPi (KidsAtPlay Interactive) awards – for the best of kids’ tech and media.
Electric toy robot Electric toy robot
CES 033 Toy robot at CES
Electric toy robot Robots come in all shapes and sizes