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Tech toys train tots for a troubling tomorrow

Mike Elgan | Feb. 24, 2015
Toys always reflect the larger culture -- its biases, fears and, most of all, its technology. New York's Toy Fair 2015 happened this week, and the latest round of new tech toys is bringing some of the most disturbing tech trends to children.

Think of it as virtual reality lite, or augmented reality lite. Unlike the coming generation of high-end consumer virtual reality from companies like Facebook's Oculus VR, View-Master will show static scenes at first. They'll be in 3D. And as you move your head around, you'll see what you would see if you were there — for example, when you look down, you'll see the ground. When you look up, you'll see the sky.

Oculus Rift and other higher-end systems, on the other hand, will show high-definition, real-time video in 3D and in all directions.

Still, the View-Master is a gateway drug to real VR and AR.

The new View-Master will demonstrate to kids that virtual reality is better than actual reality, and that living inside an immersive fantasy world is an experience that's always one second away.

It will provide a generation of children who already spend way too much time with screens — TVs, tablets and smartphones — with even more time with screens, which will be literally a few inches from their faces.

It's inevitable that — like the original View-Master — the new device will be marketed to children. (Remember how Disneyland-heavy those original collections of View-Master discs were? Yeah, those were ads.)

Mattel's new View-Master will prepare children for a world where a virtual world — a Matrix, if you will — brought to you by McDonald's, Pepsi and Lucky Charms, is way better than real life and is always a moment away.

My Pal HAL

A new smart toy is really smart. It comes from a startup called Elemental Path, and the line of toys is called CogniToys.

The first CogniToy is a green dinosaur with a big blue button on its belly. Kids can press the button, then ask a question. And they get an answer.

Here's the mind-blowing part: The question is processed, and the answer is given, by IBM's Jeopardy-winning Watson artificial intelligence supercomputer system.

When parents set up a CogniToy for their kids, they're asked to tell about their child. That information is incorporated into the customization engine. From there, the dinosaur plays educational games with the kids designed to boost their vocabularies, spelling, math skills and geography knowledge.

In the CogniToy vision of the world, an all-knowing supercomputer becomes babysitter, teacher, parent and friend.

CogniToys prepares kids for a post technological-singularity world where knowledge is obsolete — something that exists in the cloud, rather than in one's own mind and based on one's own experiences.

Please note that I'm not criticizing Mattel or Elemental Path for their innovative toys. I'm not judging the parents who choose these toys for their children. And I'm certainly not blaming kids for wanting, using or enjoying these toys.

 

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