The last time I was at Toy Fair in New York City, I was pitching products and visiting a licensee, Ohio Art, which back then was launching the Michael Jordan Wall-Ball.
The Wall-Ball had been my idea, to replace the back board of a Nerf basketball hoop with Jordan's likeness, which Ohio Art had a license to use. (Jordan, savvy businessman and passive income fan, is the highest paid athlete of all time according to Forbes.)
I'll will never forget the experience: bag in hand, wandering the cavernous Jacob Javits Center, pitching, pitch, pitching.
Before that, working for Worlds of Wonder, I was on a tear to launch Teddy Ruxpin and Lazer Tag, created by a startup that nobody knew. To make a big splash, we rented out a hotel ballroom and hired limos to bring the buyers to us. It worked. We were a hit! To my delight, people still love Teddy, and Wicked Cool Toys is bringing him back this year.
This year, too, many pitches and licenses later, I returned to Javits Center for the first time after 30 years. Back in the day, the toy industry used to be closed off. Companies were incredibly competitivet to pitch to, and by extension, hard to invent for. So, what’s changed about the toy industry?
Toy Fair still isn’t open to the public, but more and more companies are, like New Zealand-based ZURU, the fastest-growing international toy company in the United States. (ZURU won the outdoor Toy of the Year award for the Kickstarter-made-famous innovation Bunch o Balloons, which it licensed from Texas inventor Josh Malone.)
The market this year also seemed smaller: The permanent showrooms are gone and we visited just one company off site. According to the Toy Industry Association, though, the industry saw 5 percent sales growth last year. That left the big question: What do innovative toys and games look like in 2017? Are toy companies looking for product ideas from toy inventors? (The answer: yes!)
I'm also here to say that, this year, I saw some of the latest technology and it was incredible: buzzing toy drones to look out for; flying disks with Bluetooth technology; a Jenga-like Creation-myth board game that merges the physical world and our ever-present digital one in a way that is laugh-out-loud playful. An app that helps you create your own virtual reality. More and more toy companies embracing social media and in particular YouTube to build their fan bases.
Needless to say, this was quite a long way from a plush bear with a tape deck and servo motors. It felt great to be back.
What I saw at Toy Fair 2017
Popular trends at New York City Toy Fair 2017 included low or no-tech retro toys being reintroduced to a new generation; toys that encourage children to move and be active, based on traditional play patterns; miniature collectibles; robotics; and, of course, toys based on family-friendly movies coming out this year, which accounted for about 30 percent of toys sold last year. Here are my favorites:
1. Hasbro’s Play-Doh TOUCH. Affordable and easily my favorite product. Using an app and an elevated white platform, Play-Doh TOUCH allows you to create and animate your own story lines. Art-direct your own little mini-movie using a beloved, colorful, easily sculpted medium: Play-Doh! The demo I saw was magical.
2. Tucker Toys entire line, $39.95. It was refreshing to see a line of toys that was visually cohesive and striking. This line clearly valued innovation and celebrated traditional ways of playing outdoors. The award-winning New Jersey-based company, best known for its Phlat Balls, has made clever improvements on backyard staples: a baseball and bat, a flying disc, a kite and more. I was impressed. “We are all about transforming play and we’re all about innovation,” Tucker Toys CEO and President Mark Nathan, told me. “Nothing is ‘me-too’ here.”
3. ABC’s The Toy Box, in partnership with Mattel. I watched a three-minute promo for the show, which premieres on April 7th, and came away thinking: This is going to be spectacular! The show has booked as judges internet-famous young people like the redhead Noah Ritter, who at age 5 went viral after seizing the mike from a local reporter at a Pennsylvania county fair and saying the word "apparently!" in a way that instantly conveyed natural star power. Mattel takes its customers seriously!
4. Hasbro’s Roarin’ Tyler, $129.99. Roarin’ Tyler is an adorable fluffy plush tiger that comes to life when you pet and talk to him. Part of Hasbro's FurReal Friends line, Tyler is capable of making more than 100 motions and sounds. The way the tiger moved and looked blew me away.
5. Mattel’s Barbie DreamHorse, $99.99. This lovingly designed horse can trot, turn in a circle, nuzzle in response to touch, nod "yes" or "no" when you pose it a question, play songs and dance. Sounds like a good friend to me! In every way, this is an improvement over Barbie’s last animated horse. Shoot the Moon invented the horse for Mattel.
6. Sensible Object’s Beasts of Balance, $99. Most toys and games that try to integrate tech seem to do so as an afterthought. Not Beasts of Balance from London-based Sensible Objects, a stacking Jenga-like tabletop game and app which allows players to create fantastical worlds and creatures that then morph on screen. Both the digital app and plastic stacking pieces had a keen sense of modern design and color. And, frankly, the demo I saw was sheer fun! I laughed out loud -- it was that clever. Sensible Objects wrapped up a successful Kickstarter campaign for the product in December.
Related: Introducing Entrepreneur Barbie
7. WizHead Paper Heads, $19.99-to-$22.99. This Boston-based startup is using modern technology to reimagine 3D paper models based on portraits of famous historical figures. No glue is required to assemble the paper visages; adjoining flaps are used to connect precut puzzle pieces. I wanted one for myself to put on my desk right away. As a fan of novelty gifts and a designer whose favorite prototyping medium is paper, I couldn’t help but appreciate the intricate construction. The Mona Lisa head puzzle, for example, is composed of 161 multi-shape polygons with 154 edges. Something just a little bit different!