Brian Zheng knew any new toy his company created had to capture his 8-year-old's attention. It would have to do more for Alicia than her dolls, video games and DVDs, because she had relegated all those to the class of "no fun."
So Zheng, chief executive of City of Industry-based Playhut, came up with Wowbotz and Kuttiez, robot-themed figurines that function like hand held video games and provide pass codes to get to progressively higher levels of play. The figurines, hooked up to a computer by cable, then open up a virtual online world where children can unlock different areas with the pass codes.
"Play patterns are completely different from when I was a kid," Zheng said. "Today, it's toys that can relate with the Internet."
To launch these high-tech toys, Zheng created a new division, GoLive2, within Playhut, which makes pop-up play structures. He hired 200 additional employees in Los Angeles and China for GoLive2 and filed 15 patents for the products.
Wowbotz, which resembles a modern-day version of R2D2, and Kuttiez, a spunky girl creature, will hit the market later this year. The company is in talks with national big-box retailers and toy sellers that already carry Playhut's play structures.
The new division exemplifies the trend of kids incorporating the Internet into their play patterns. A leading example is New York-based Ganz Corp.'s Webkinz, a line of plush animals that come with log-ins to an online interactive site, where children find a virtual counterpart of their stuffed animal. They can then play computer games to win points, and use those points to buy clothes and food for the online character.
"There's a growing trend of traditional play coupled with virtual play to create greater value," said Richard Gottlieb, a business development consultant for the toy industry. "It makes the toy more inflation proof. If the price of plastic goes up, they can just offer more virtual value."
Internet-enabled toys still make up a fairly small segment of the highly competitive, $22 billion toy industry.
But that number, the sector's sales for 2007, represents a drop of 2 percent from 2006. That's why GoLive2 is also planning to move into the $9.5 billion video game industry, which grew 6 percent from last year, more than tripling its size over the past decade.
The company's other new product is Stix, a game controller that allows any computer or Web-based video game to function like a Nintendo Wii game. Once plugged into a computer, the white sticklike controller works like a racket for tennis video games and a club for golf games. It also comes with a touch-screen for first-person shooting games.
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