Christmas is just around the corner and the hunt for the best kids toys out there has never been more exciting. With iPhone-controlled toys, customizable robots and smart toys that aim to teach kids life skills while entertaining them, the latest breed of high-tech toys have a lot to offer. Even books and pens, augmented with a little technology can read to kids or coach them to write. If you're looking to surprise junior with toys that feature a delightful technological twist, Gizmag's top 10 coolest tech toys for kids should give you plenty of ideas.
1. Sphero 2.0
The Sphero 2.0 robotic ball is what every little ball might aspire to be, if it could but dream. You can take it for a jog, see it swim or glow, race it under furniture, launch it off ramps and even use it as a game controller.
Apart from the fun games one can play with a ball that zips around the floor at a blistering 7 ft (2 m) per second, this smartphone-controlled toy really comes to life when you start downloading apps that let you play augmented reality (AR) and mixed-reality games with it.
For instance, when you view your kitchen floor (or any setting) through your device's camera when it's running the AR based Rolling Dead app, you'll see zombies spawning under the kitchen table that can be destroyed through a fireball shooting Sphero. In reality, the robot ball rolls on the floor towards invisible zombies. In mixed reality golf, players swing their phone to putt the Sphero into a virtual hole.
More than just a powerhouse of fun, this programmable ball lets kids as young as 8 years learn coding, if they're of a mind to program it to do simple things like follow a preset course. The Sphero 2.0 is available for US$129.99.
2. Anki Drive
Remember the sassy smart car "KITT" of Knight Rider fame? Well, the Anki Drive smart cars may not be life size or have all those bells and whistles, but they can sure drive by themselves; they also evolve unique personalities the more they are played with.
Take them out of the box and pair them to smartphones (iOS only for now) via Bluetooth and they are ready to zoom off on a vinyl race track. The inbuilt artificial intelligence keeps the cars on course, letting you maneuver them by tilting the phone. You can play against other people or the AI (which gets other cars to nudge, slam or box you in) or both. The fun really begins in the battle mode where players get to fire virtual pulse weapons or tractor beams at other cars on screen which disables or slows down the real-life cars.
At the end of the race, players are awarded points based on performance which they can use to beef up their cars with new weapons, expanded capabilities and more. These become permanent facets of the cars personality enabling players to build formidable self-driving race cars over time that race a certain way no matter who plays with them.
The starter kit retails for $199.95 at Apple's stores and additional cars are $69 each.
Ever wished that creating things with electronics could be as simple as snapping a few blocks together? littleBits makes it so. The littleBits building blocks are color-coded circuit components that you can attach to each other, and you don't have to know any electronics to create cool stuff with them.
What's more, you can combine them with ordinary objects to make uncommon things like an animated holiday hat that displays a ghostly Santa flying his reindeer when tapped, or a bow tie that jiggles at the sound of your voice.
You can grab the Base Kit for $99 and watch your kids unleash their imagination. Premium and Deluxe kits retail for $149 and $199 respectively.
Ubooly puts a fresh spin on plush toys by having your iPhone or iPod Touch zip into the cuddly body of a stuffed animal. Activate the Ubooly app and Ubooly's face appears as you swipe the screen and awaken it.
The toy listens and responds to a person's voice and falls asleep when ignored. Part of its ongoing charm is the fact that it can constantly be updated with new stories, jokes, games and songs to keep kids engaged.
As well as being uber cute, the toy is a win-win proposition for both parents and kids – parents can rest easy in the knowledge that their smart device is safe from harm in a furry casing, while kids get to play with their parents' gadgets to their heart's content.
The toy is pretty inexpensive too, with a small Ubooly priced at $29.99, and a Jumbo version at $59.95. The app is free to download.
5. Lego Mindstorms EV3
Remember sitting in front of a Lego pieces piled willy-nilly on the floor? Now imagine putting them together to create functional robots you can program to do your bidding, after you finish building them.
Lego Mindstorms EV3 gives you the ability to piece together truly awesome robots like the fierce cobra bot R3PTAR and the scorpion like SPIK3R. You can control your creations with a remote or from your smart device via Bluetooth, and do things like have the cobra bot strike out by moving your device the same way. There's also an app with animations to help you with the build process for the five EV3 robots in the set.
Programming the finished creation is as simple as dragging and dropping instruction modules into a visual workspace and hitting play at the end. The bots also come with pre-written programs that showcase their more advanced capabilities, such as shooting red balls at infrared targets or navigating around obstacles.
With 594 bricks and a variety of sensors, motors and components, the EV3 offers a robotic programming playground that's extremely addictive. Price: $349.99.
6. Sparkup Magical Book Reader
If you enjoy reading stories out loud to kids, but find the fact that you might not always be available (or inclined) slightly troublesome, here's a high-tech alternative instead. Just clip the Sparkup Reader to a book and read the story out once into its microphone.
The device captures the audio for each page which kids can playback later. They'll just need to attach the reader to the book, and turn to the page they want read, to hear the recording. If you balk at the thought of yet another rendition of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, the Sparkup Reader will take care of it for you. It's available for $59.99.
7. Nano-Falcon Helicopter
Small enough to use a lemon as a launch pad, the Nano-Falcon is one of the most adorable remote-controlled (RC) helicopters we've laid our eyes on.
It's the world's smallest RC helicopter according to the Guinness Book of Records, weighing a mere 11 g (0.38 oz). You can get it to hover, rotate, execute turns and fly about with the aid of an infrared controller. With a range of 5 m (16.4 ft) and a continuous flying time of about 5 minutes, this tiny toy comes recommended for kids above the age of 6 years. It's priced at $49.70.
Having a robotic avatar hanging on your every word can be kind of engaging and that's what you get with WowWee's RoboMe. You can give the customizable robot a face by sliding your iPhone or iPod Touch into RoboMe's robotic body and play around with individual features on its face, such as its eyes, hair, accessories or more, to create distinct looks and even expressions (like gazing at you with lovestruck eyes).
Aside from giving it any personality you like, it's easy to program all kinds of quirky behaviors into it, such as having it dance if anyone shakes its hand or run away when hearing a key phrase. It understands voice commands and is smart enough to move through a room or any setting by itself without running into things; a remote control also gives you control if you desire it.
Things get even more interesting when you experiment with RoboMe's "remote visual telepresence" feature. Paired with a second iPhone, it transforms into a robotic spy – you can see and hear whatever RoboMe does. Sounds like an argument for getting one of your own, don't you think? Just to pop by and see if the kids are really doing their homework.
RoboMe retails for $100.
9. LeapReader Pen
Not stopping at teaching young kids to read, Leapfrog's LeapReader Pen also helps them learn how to write stroke-by-stroke. The pen instructs kids via a built-in speaker as they trace out letters in the provided workbook and eggs them on with encouraging words, flashing lights and sounds.
The paper in the workbook incorporates embedded ink, which means a child just needs to press down with the pen to make a stroke. The pen doesn't write on any other paper or surface apart from the special paper provided in the workbook, which means you don't have to worry about kids using it to scribble on walls.
To access the pen's reading features, kids simply need to touch the words in specially printed picture books to hear them spoken out aloud. Designed for kids 4-8 years, the pen is priced at $50.
10. 14-in-1 Educational Solar Robot Kit
Say goodbye to batteries forever with the OWI 14-in-1 Educational Solar Robot Kit. This innovative kit lets you build 14 different robotic creatures and things, all powered by the sun, capable of moving on land or water.
At the entry level, kids can try their hands at building a crawling beetle, a tail-wagging dog, a floating boat and more. The more advanced (level two) projects take the form of a walking crab, a slithering robot and even a zombie chaser, to name a few.
It's a great toy to get kids interested in renewable energy sources while training them in hands-on robotic building. The kit retails for US$31.95.