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news  14/03/03

Toy Industry is test bed for new ideas  
By Alan Cane  

Reproduced by kind permission of

Here's a tip for any technologist who wants to see speedy market acceptance for his or her brainchild. Find a toy or game whose desirability and utility could be boosted by its addition; bring the price down to a level where it won't strain the parental purse and: bingo!

Bingo itself - the game not the exclamation - could perhaps benefit from say, talking balls that announce their numbers in a variety of humorous accents so opening a new market for computer generated speech technologies.

But whimsy apart, the fact is that the earliest exposure to the mass market for many dazzlingly ingenious technologies is courtesy of the toy industry. It provides a test bed that is both rigorous and pitiless.

An example is digital vision. VLSI Vision (VVL), now part of the ST Microelectronics group, was founded in 1990 by Professor Peter Denyer as a spin-out from Edinburgh University where he had pioneered a new kind of silicon compiler - software capable of designing silicon chips to order.

VVL, however, was established to create the world's first image processing system on a single chip. The technical term is charged couple device. Now they are produced in their thousands by a variety of companies: the world market for CMOS sensors is of the order of $200m annually. At the time, though, Professor Denyer found it hard to be taken seriously when he claimed it would be possible to build a digital camera for a few dollars using his chip. This was at a time when digital cameras were large and hugely expensive.

As it happens, the first implementation of the VVL chip was in a security system: intruders or other disturbance would trigger the camera.

But the first time the wider world was exposed to the fruits of Prof Denyer's labours was when his chip was taken up as the basis of a toy video camera distributed by the US toy giant Tyco.

Shortly afterwards, Mattel decided to use the chip for Barbie's Digital Camera, a low-priced, pastel coloured accessory for the eponymous doll. Today, VVL chips, now under the ST Microelectronics banner, are used in a broad range of digital cameras. Polaroid, for example, recently launched a new range licensed from the Character Group of Hong Kong.

Professor Denyer argues that, far from making trivial use of frequently awesome technologies, toys are a good market providing the kind of volumes that keep prices down and encourage efficiencies in production.

A well-received product, for example, could generate demand for 500,000 units in a season.

A second example and one which has yet to break into the big time is break-step productions, a Cambridge company that is developing a system of machine vision based on elements of human neurophysiology. According to managing director Patrick Andrews, the system, called Foveola, should be capable of recognising a broad range of objects rather than a single class - text, for example, or machine components.

It does this by "memorising" or storing the essential features of images as numerical codes. It recognises an object by comparing its numeric code with those in its database. It cannot, therefore, recognise something it has not seen before but Dr Andrews argues that it can make a "best guess" at its identity: The storage of shape memories in a single database allows for long-range, human-like visual analogies to occur: an "L" for example looks some what like a gumboot. We see a simple face is made up of three triangles and a banana: so can Foveola". he argues.

Whether Foveola is a breakthrough in machine vision or simply a novel contribution to its development is an open question, like so many physical systems based on biological processes. But it can be demonstrated to work and Dr Andrews is looking for manufacturers of interactive toys who could make use of its special properties. He foresees a range of cultural and educational uses to which it could be put.

The adoption of advanced technologies in toys and games can have benefits in familiarising people with complex, sometimes not very intuitive ways of operating machines. Who would not, for example, prefer to start their digital photographic career with Barbie's camera rather than a multimega pixel monster from one of the "serious" manufacturers?

But there may be another, simpler, reason. As Fergal Butler, internet guru at cable operator Telewest, put it: "Creative people have minds that are like a child's".

© 2003 The Financial Times Limited
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