By Christina Cheddar Berk, CNBC.com
Toys and Technology
If you have ever had to wrestle your iPad from your child's clutches, you know that kids love playing on tablets and smartphones. The trend has not been missed by toymakers. They know that even before a child can read or speak, they have an affinity for these devices.
Enter the biggest trend at this year's American International Toy Fair: toys that are either based on apps, or can be used with tablets and smartphones. The trend began last year, but this year the volume of products in this category will explode.
Some see the emerging trend as a way for toy companies to woo children back to their products, but others expect these technologies also can be used to enhance classic children's play.
Whatever side you're on, it is still too early to know what kids will think of these products and which ones will stand out in the crowd.
Already, several basic approaches to this market have sprung up. Some toymakers are using physical toys to interact with smartphones and tablets, while others are using apps to strengthen their brands by carving out a space for them in the virtual world. Another group is recognizing that these brands are an important pop culture phenomenon and are developing toys that bring these virtual characters and games to life in the real world.
See the slideshow: Hottest Tech Toys for Kids
Available: Fall 2012
Parents have long known there is a need to police their children on the Internet, but what should you do about your iPhone or iPad? Not only do the same dangers exist, apps present new risks, including the chance for your child to ring up big bills by making purchases within the apps they are using.
TechnoSource has developed an affordable Android-based tablet which allows parents to set up as many as eight distinct profiles and customize parental controls for each - great for parents with more than one child. The parental controls are easy to customize to protect children from common Internet dangers. The tablet also has bumpers to protect it from drops and rough play.
Manufacturer: Physical Apps
Available: May 2012
TheO shows you don't have to be a big toy company to get into this category. TheO - which is exactly what it looks like, a soft foam ball that securely holds an iPhone or iPod Touch - was developed by a high school photography teacher who got an idea to put an iPhone or iPod in a ball to take advantage of the devices' accelerometer and shuffle functions. When students tossed the ball to each other, the images would shuffle. After the ball was caught, the student could look at the image on the screen and identify it. That's a lot more fun than sitting in a dark room looking at slides.
But there are other applications, including a bowling game that allows you to roll the ball along the floor while the accelerometer translates the motions into the game.
When the ball becomes available in May, it will come with three apps; additional ones will be available for purchase at the Apple and Android stores.
Talk about coming full circle. Last holiday season, Mattel had a lot of success with a board game version of the poplar Rovio app Angry Birds. This year, Mattel is bringing Angry Birds back to the tablet with a game that will combine physical toys that interact with a tablet.
That's not all. Under its new Apptivity line, Mattel has several other items that work under this basic model - some use its popular toy brands. For example, the company demoed a Hot Wheels game: It uses a special toy car that races along a track that flashes across the tablet's screen. Others are based on popular apps such as Fruit Ninja.
For younger kids, the company will introduce the Laugh & Learn Apptivity Monkey, a plush toy that can house an iPhone or iPod Touch. Babies can squeeze the toy's hands and feet and interact with the app.
The product is a follow up to a case Fisher-Price sold last year that could be used to protect an iPhone or iPod while toddlers played with the devices. In July, Fisher-Price will have a case for the iPad, as well.
Spy BalloonSpy Balloon
Manufacturer: Fantasma Toys
In recent years, we've seen toys that can be operated remotely using an iPod or iPhone. This zeppelin from Fantasma Toys can also act as a spy balloon, taking pictures from the air by using a smartphone.
The company also is coming out with a golf game this year, where the player swings the iPhone as if it were a club.
Hasbro Zapped GamingHasbro Zapped Gaming
Talk about old meets new. Hasbro is revamping some of its classic board games, including The Game of Life and Monopoly, to incorporate the use of an iPad or iPhone.
Some of the features, such as a virtual spinner, offer players a nice special effect, but other features really improve the way the game is played. For example, in Monopoly players will be able to play virtual mini-games when they pull Chance and Community Chest cards.
The Game of Life is available now. Monopoly will hit stores in June and Battleship will come out in September.
See the full list: Hottest Tech Toys for Kids
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By Christina Cheddar Berk, CNBC.com