Guandong Chinese, chew on this!

From: Grant Callaghan (
Date: Mon 09 Dec 2002 - 16:16:05 GMT

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    Building a Better Cat By SAUL HANSELL


    WHAT could be cooler than opening a big box under the Christmas tree and finding a two-foot-long green robotic dinosaur?

    That's what Leif Askeland thought two years ago as he and a team of fellow engineers at Hasbro's Tiger Electronics division were rushing to finish a working model of a microchip-controlled raptor that could lumber across the floor, swing its tail and open its jaws to show off a fearsome set of teeth.

    Mr. Askeland displayed his creation in January 2001 at Toy Fair, the industry's annual gathering in New York. The reaction of the assembled buyers from the world's toy stores was tepid, and Hasbro canceled the dinosaur before it ever hit the shelves. Starting with Tiger's Furby, robotic creatures had been one of the biggest fads of the late 1990's. But sales had crashed, and many in the industry were pronouncing the entire species extinct.

    It was a blow to Mr. Askeland, but he and his team knew that advances in technology were enabling toys to do far more for less money. So in the spring of last year they sat around a big wooden table here on the factory floor that once stamped out Hasbro's Mr. Potato Head and G.I. Joe, and tried to figure out what sort of robotic toy would appeal to retailers, parents and children.

    Their answer: a cat. But unlike the other robotic pets, it would not be the sort of silvery contraption that looks as though it just pounced off a flying saucer. No, he would build a cuddly lap cat that would purr when you petted it and press its face into your hand if you rubbed its cheeks. It would be covered in fur, not hard plastic.

    After a year of development and deep skepticism within Hasbro and in the toy industry, the result of Mr. Askeland's work hit the market in July. At $35 each, FurReal Friends, as Hasbro named it, has become one of the season's hottest toys and is almost sold out at stores across the country. Hasbro declines to specify how many FurReal Friends it has sold but says the figure is in the millions.

    That a cat would succeed where a dinosaur failed reflects in one sense the fickleness of the toy market.

    "There is a lot of market research before a toy launch, but success or failure is hard to predict,'' said Jill Krutick, a toy industry analyst at Salomon Smith Barney. "You see something that spikes up, like animal gadgetry, and then consumers turn up their noses at it.''

    But the development of the FurReal cat may also suggest that the electronic toy industry is beginning to grow up, subordinating the gadgetry to classic, open-ended modes of play.

    "You don't want the technology in a toy to be visible,'' said Judy Ellis, the chairwoman of the toy design department at the Fashion Institute of Technology. "The first robot pets were very cool-looking, but a child doesn't relate to a shiny surface. A child can relate to a furry cat.''

    Indeed, Mr. Askeland passed up some of the technological features used in other robotic pets like infrared sensors so more money could go into the feel of the cat's fur and the look of its eyes.

    "You can make tricks that you would do one time,'' Mr. Askeland said. "We preferred to focus on the emotional aspects of play. Nurturing and friendship are things that stay with you for a lifetime.''

    * * * Now Guandong cat lovers know what to do with all that left-over cat fur.


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