In Pictures: Technology proves big fun at the Nuremberg Toy Fair

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High-tech sights from the 2015 Nuremberg Toy Fair (Photo: C.C. Weiss/Gizmag)

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It might seem strange that Gizmag spent a good chunk of the busy month of January playing with toys at two major toy fairs, London and Nuremberg. The toy segment is following consumer technology closely, though, and many of the same trends that we see at major shows like CES and IFA are also evident at the international toy fairs ... only in smaller, simpler, more child-friendly packages. Proclaimed as the world's biggest toy fair, the Nuremberg Toy Fair ("Spielwarenmesse" in German), which wrapped up earlier this week, gave us a good feel for how toy companies are incorporating the latest technologies, including robotics and connectivity.

Toys get smarter

One of the biggest trends at CES 2015 was ordinary, everyday items getting smart by way of wireless connectivity and control. This proved a major trend at the Nuremberg Toy Fair, too, with smartphone/tablet connectivity adding new dimensions to classic staples like Legos and toy trains.

Toy train manufacturer Roco blurs lines between real and digital worlds with its "Next Generation" train set line, which it launched just in time for the 2014 holiday season. Aimed at children ages six to 12, Next Generation capitalizes on this age group's enthusiasm for video games and smart devices by combining physical H0-scale train sets with an iOS/Android app. The app not only allows the child to control the train via smart device, but it also integrates the physical train into virtual games. The games present the child with problems that must be solved using the real-life trains.

In Nuremberg, Roco revealed its global intentions for the line, showing the new "Detective Tom" Next Generation train set in English, Spanish and Mandarin. The set will start at €149 (approx. US$169).

I wasn't much of a train conductor as a kid, but I did spend hours and hours racing mini sports cars on my Tyco racetrack. In looking back, I'm kind of glad my parents didn't let me get video games until I was older because I might not have the great memories of car racing today. Going head to head with my dad after he got home from work right before I went to bed and laughing hysterically when a fellow racer's car went flying off a touchy corner are memories that replay vividly in my mind as if they happened last week.

Roco's parent company Modelleisenbahn Gruppe also showcased a smart racetrack from Carrera at its stand. The track, which was labeled as a "concept design study," offered smart device control of the slot cars and created a racing game that augmented head-to-head physical racing with virtual gameplay elements. In the middle of racing the car, it pulled over to the pit stop area on the track and the onscreen game prompted me to change the tire. With a few pokes of the touchscreen, the tire was changed and the race car was circling the track once again. It was a fun twist on one of my favorite childhood toys, and I can see how the virtual add-on could help keep today's children engaged and entertained, pulling them back into the real world – at least partially.

Combining physical toys with virtual stories and games isn't a strategy limited to toy vehicles. Each of the eight "Ultra Agents" build sets Lego showed in Nuremberg includes a single "app brick." Not only does the app brick serve as part of the build – vehicles like battleships and helicopters – but it also works with an accompanying smart device, bringing the child into a graphic novel-style story and offering various simpler games and puzzles. By completing missions, players can also open up hidden instructions for physical Lego builds.

The Ultra Agents sets will hit the German market in two waves starting this month, with prices ranging between €20 and €90. Some of the kits are already available in the United States, with others set to launch in March.

Robotics brought to life

Robotics gives toymakers another tool in spicing up old childhood classics with new technology. Remember the Meccano set (Erector if you did your childhood building in the US)? Now, the century-old company is advancing far beyond multi-holed struts and bolts to design one of the most advanced toys the world has ever seen. The Meccanoid G15 KS brings robotics and basic programming to life. The build-up, child-sized robot includes articulated movements via a number of integrated servos, along with a voice recognition platform.

At Meccano's demonstration, we saw how programming the robot was as simple as moving it and saying something aloud and watching it repeat both the movement and statement. There is also an accompanying app that allows for remote control and mimicking through motion capture, and the whole system is open source, allowing for more advanced programming experimentation as the child progresses. While it looks a lot different than the Meccano (or Erector) set you remember from childhood, it uses the same exact types of components, albeit constructed of durable polycarbonate, allowing the child to break it down and build it back up as something new. The holes are the same size, too, so he or she can even add pieces from dad's old Meccano set in the attic.

Meccano told us that it's about two or three prototypes away from the production version, which it plans to ready by August. It expects pricing to come in around $400 and plans to distribute through mainstream outlets like Toys "R" Us and Target.

For children that might be intimidated by such a large robot (or parents that might be intimidated by its large price), there are also plenty of smaller robotic toys for learning and playing. Variobot showcased its tibo robotic kit, a small, award-winning DIY wheeled robot that uses a series of light sensors to differentiate between light and dark, maneuver around objects, follow light, communicate with other robots via infrared and more. The child can start off with simple designs, then use the kit of circuit boards, motors, resistors, capacitors, LED lights, etc. to make the tibo more advanced and vary its behavior. The kit is available in Germany for around €80.

Drones create a buzz

Drones are really just smarter, more function-packed versions of the RC helicopters that kids fly around the park on sunny weekend afternoons. It was no surprise, therefore, that drones were all over the toy fair. What was a bit of a surprise was just how many toy companies felt compelled to buzz their drones about in transparent "look at me" fashion. A few had netted drone-flying areas, while others just flew them around the walkways in front of their booths. We were able to ignore the incessant buzzing long enough to focus in on a few drones that rose well above the pack, figuratively speaking.

The new Inspire 1 from DJI immediately caught our attention with its black-and-white design, and it held it with a laundry list of high-end features. In a drone world that's still largely 1080p, the 4K/30fps camera sets the Inspire 1 apart. That camera enjoys 360 degrees worth of clean shooting thanks to the carbon fiber arms that lift out of sight at the flick of a switch. The drone also delivers real-time video streaming (720p) and maneuvers as adeptly indoors as out thanks to its Vision Positioning sensor set. Dual-operator mode allows one person to fly the drone and another to operate the camera, giving the operator one more way of getting the perfect footage. The Inspire 1 is available now for $2,899 with a single remote or $3,399 with dual remotes.

Another interesting gadget of the sky, the Bionic Bird abandons the familiar heli/quadcopter form for a more natural, bird-mimicking design. It's controlled via an iOS or Android device, and a simple tilt or swipe adjusts movement as desired. The bird only flies for about 7.5 minutes, but the egg-shaped magnetic charger is portable, offering up to 10 charges in the field. It is available for preorder at €99.

New ways to roll down the street

While not typically as high-tech as anything called a robot or drone, the bike and scooter segment is one that is constantly seeing innovation and new designs. Nuremberg proved that such innovation is as common on kid bikes as is it is on bikes aimed at adult commuters and racers. There were numerous interesting bikes and scooters on display, including a few electric models.

We've come across stepper scooters and bikes like the Staircycle and Me-Mover, as well as rocker scooters like the Rockerboard. They all claim some fitness advantages, but not one of them looks as fun as a traditional bike or kick scooter.

The SurfStep we saw within the Nuremberg Trend Gallery looks like a step-style scooter with enough fun factor to capture a child's imagination. Instead of two separate foot platforms or a single curved teeter, it uses a flat, skateboard-inspired platform to transform a surf-like motion into forward roll up to 15.5 mph (25 km/h). Not only does the rider get some stepper workout benefits, but he or she enjoys a skate-style scooter that can launch into the air and play in the skate park – things one would probably avoid on a big, heavy exercise machine like the ElliptiGO 3C. The scooter isn't as compact as basic kick scooters, but it does fold up for quick carry and transport. It also adjusts in height.

The SurfStep is an old concept that's undergone a recent facelift and reinvigorated marketing push. Originally launched in 2001, the SurfStep was redesigned in 2013 with a reworked frame and brand-new components. It's been showing up at toy fairs, sports shows and in internet videos pretty regularly since last year and is available for preorder at a price of €249.

Micro had a number of innovative bike, trike and scooter designs on display, the most prominent of which was its new mini2go trike, a two-in-one design for small children between 18 months and five years old. It starts off as a stable, low-to-ground push trike with an integrated storage bin perfect for toys, snacks and other bring-alongs. The child can push him or herself forward, or an adult can do so with the extendable rear push handle. The bin and seat remove and the handlebar adjusts in height, turning the mini2go into a three-wheeled kick scooter.

Other interesting mobility products at Micro's booth included the latest version of its PedalFlow, a foldable scooter with stand-up pedal drivetrain, and a prototype scooter with built-in lock.

Take a look in our photo gallery for more high-tech and innovative toys that follow these and other popular trends. While kids were the overwhelming focus of the show, we also saw a few toys for grown-ups, including an unexpected appearance by the one-of-a-kind Lamborghini Egoista, a car we hadn't even seen at major international auto shows.

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