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The Soft, Screenless Future Of Toys, According To Fisher-Price

A new concept video teases the near future of parenting, and interactivity is everywhere.

By 2025, we'll have a new wave of parents: millennials and the Snapchat addicts of Generation Z. It's a group of new caretakers who have always been online, and yet, are known to prioritize experiences over products. So what could their baby products look like?

It's a paradox captured perfectly in a new concept video, produced by Fisher-Price and the design consultancy Continuum. In it, we get a peek at how the 86-year-old toy brand sees parenting and play transform in 2025. It’s a nice bit of concept work that’s meant to serve as a north star for Fisher-Price (which is owned by toy giant Mattel). We sat down with Mark Zeller, head of design at Fisher-Price, to break down the insights hiding beneath the enchanting visuals.

Toys Will Age Better, But Cost More
Good news and bad news. Even as technology prices come down, Zeller says that what you see here will likely cost more than what Fisher-Price is selling today. But Fisher-Price will be designing toys to last longer, and age with your child.

"It’s all about the value," Zeller says. "We’re going to be pushing some of these price points, and if the retailers and trade say this is worth it, then why not? Because the value is there."

Toys could cost more because of both materials and interactive elements. Fisher-Price gave Continuum the opportunity to think beyond plastic, and it leads to some beautiful toys, like a version of the iconic Rock-a-Stack rings sewn in felt.

The materials look good in your home—and feel good to your baby—while software can help toys age better over time. "The goal is to make that item, and every item, do so much more," Zeller says. "So they’ll have the ability to grow with the child." The video features a height chart—it blooms as a projected tree on the nearest wall—growing more detailed and ornate over the years. This is the sort of long-lead, added value possible when the potential of software is fully tapped (assuming it's more automatic than the firmware updates we have today).

Why is Fisher-Price thinking this way? They have to. "We know the parents, the younger millennial parents, do have that desire [to own less]," Zeller says. "And I think that speaks to us to raise the quality of materials." That way, parents are buying fewer, higher-quality products and toys.



Child Quantification Will Offer Joy, Not Numerical Anxiety
The problem with tracking devices, like the Fitbit and Jawbone Up, is that while they can quantify that you slept badly with a chart of your sleep cycles, they don’t necessarily make you feel better or smarter for knowing you shouldn’t have stayed up so late watching Netflix. They just make you feel guilty.

Apply that same principle to your child, and the phenomenon only gets worse. "We found parents aren’t heavy into assessment, they don’t want judgment in how their child is progressing," Zeller says. "They want information—but they’re not looking for big data to assess their child."

But what is data without assessment? Fisher-Price demos a smart feeding tray, which could identify food placed in front of your child, and offer a visualization of the range of how much or little of that food your child might eat based upon her age and weight. (For those of us who worry whether our child is eating enough, at times, it’s a no-judgement feedback loop that quantifies possibilities of a meal rather than its results.) Maybe your kid will eat a lot of her blueberries today. Maybe not. No big deal either way.

In other cases, "You’re able to use the data to keep track of milestones. They’re all centered around joyful experiences, rather than on gathering information," Zeller says. You can see this in the video when the child is taking his first steps with a walker, and that information appears as a snapshot on his growth tree. This self-quantification data could also be used to learn what a child is into—animals or numbers or cars or silly sounds—and feed that back into the system automatically.

Digital Tech Will Blur Boundaries On Physical Play
The wildest moments of the video revolve around holograms. So. Many. Holograms. Jungle holograms that surround a kid on living room safari, mobile holograms that entertain a child in a bouncer.

"Our research process led us to the conclusion that the future is not screen-based. When anything can be a display, tech will dissolve into the environment," Zeller says. "Thinking beyond the limitations of a screen means we’ll be able to create toys and everyday objects that will have the power to catalyze parent-child interactions, contextualize learning moments, and spark open-ended play."

Fisher-Price is quick to say that they don’t want to replace physical, tactile experiences. (It’s why the video features various smart fabrics, too.) But holograms and projections are still useful because they enable child-by-child personalization, a new series of toys that might actually tailor their content to a child's interest, or respond to his evolving utterances in a way that a completely physical toy never could. They allow physical toys to turn digital. And furthermore, they provide a way for a toy to have contextual awareness. The best example is seen in a moment in the video when a bird flies by the window (it looks CGI, but Zeller tells me to imagine it’s real), and the window itself spells out "bird."

Such contextual awareness, of course, requires loads of sensor technology that’s only on the cusp of the mass market today, but with this clip, Fisher-Price hopes to entice partners who could make the possibilities come alive. Electronic toys, however, are a tricky line to walk—as new research shows that toys that glow and beep can hinder language development, compared to good old wooden puzzles and blocks. The more aggressively a toy intervenes in childhood development, the more carefully the market will need to develop its toys.

But Don’t Expect Childhood Development To Change As A Result
How could such toys change childhood itself? "I don’t think we necessarily think children are going to change, or that their developmental milestones will change," Zeller says. "We’re really looking at ways to bring play and learning seamlessly to the home." In other words, to Fisher-Price, the future of parenting is getting to watch your child have even more fun. And yes, lots of holograms, too.