Joshua Strickon, Ph.d. is the principal and founder of The Ocean View Lab, LLC. Josh is currently bringing his experience of innovation and research in technology, media and entertainment to the toy industry. His active projects look to rethink the use robotics in toys, while enabling children's creativity. He currently is named on 4 issued patents, including being one of the original inventors for Apple's multitouch technology. He is also a board member of Thrill Science and consults regularly for companies such as The Walt Disney Company.
What drives innovation in the toy industry? How can the toy industry successfully adopt technology?
The toy industry has one distinct advantage over any other one; it must innovate to survive. Each year, toy companies release their newest creations, culled from the many ideas of inventors and others, in hope of having that runaway must have hit of the holiday season. The timeline from initial idea, taking orders and presenting at toy fair and ultimately shipping in time for the holidays is quite short. Ironically, this leaves little time to innovate.
Other industries have the ability to approach this on a slightly slower schedule. When I worked in the consumer electronics industry, product timelines can easily extend past two years, but longer timelines don’t necessarily imply more innovation. In many cases, once on a path there is little ability to change its course. If a product requires a new piece of silicon to be fabricated, you may not have samples to test with for many months. In many cases, you are placing bets with your product definition and hoping that everything comes together at the end. There are various checks along the way, but at some point the product must ship.
The declining cost of electronic components has enabled more technology to be embedded in toys, but that budget is miniscule in the scope of a product. With retail prices of many toys well below $50, and wholesale much lower, there is a limit as to what can be accomplished. Components such as servo motors, displays and switches can quickly exhaust a product’s bill of materials.
This leaves two schools of thought for innovation. In one case, there is innovation at a price point. In this model, you pool all of your engineering and product tricks to create a compelling product with what you can do “Now” to meet a particular market price. This is the do as much with as little as possible model. Great products can come from this type of innovation but it isn’t applicable for products that have longer development needs. This won’t help you with what product is going to be hot in two, three, four or even five years.
The second method addresses long-term innovation goals, as it is to innovate the product independent of cost. In this model, you develop prototypes that may use higher end components, be run off of tethered computers, and may have component costs beyond what is feasible today. The goal is to prototype an experience. The end result should answer the question of is this a good product, not is this a good product now. It may be that the current economic climate can’t sustain its price point, the time to bring it to market may be more than a year, or that specific technological components are trending towards a point that will make it work. If you only look at now, you will never be successful later.
So why is this different, what has changed? The answer is in the decline in cost and availability of rapid prototyping. 3D printing, low-cost programmable microcontrollers, laser-cutting and other tools are enabling people to develop working prototypes at costs and timelines that were once unheard of. The current crop of young innovators has access to tools that once required hundreds of thousands of dollars. Cross-disciplinary educational programs are producing what the creator of The Sims, Will Wright, calls Entertainment Designers. These people don’t think in one domain. They may know some electrical engineering, mechanical engineering as well design. These people think differently.
They operate in the world of doing. The best statement is said by showing something working. No longer is a product pitch simply a drawing and a video. These demos are now working concepts, meant to have the key elements of future products. These demos should be evaluated as such.
So how does the toy industry embrace this change of course? The answer is to embrace innovation. The cost of trying is low. The industry needs to rethink its timelines. The abilities of these future inventors will change the way the industry interacts with them. The technology is here now to create working demos of products that will be here later. Don’t miss out.