16: High Tech's Future Is in the Toy Chest

Toymakers are pushing the boundaries in artificial intelligence, wireless communications, and virtual reality. And the benefits are flowing to other industries as well

In a war-ravaged village, an Army lieutenant sets off on a spy mission. As he navigates a dank tunnel on his way to the enemy's hideout, rats scurry around his feet and bats flutter overhead. The bone-jarring rumble of a passing enemy vehicle shakes rocks lose from the bloodstained walls. Watchdogs soon spot him and bark furiously, causing his heart to race.

Luckily, the scenario isn't real. It's DarkCon, a virtual-reality video game being developed by the U.S. Army-backed Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) at the University of Southern California, which aims to create total-immersion military training tools. The bats, rats, enemy soldiers, and even the heartbeats are digitally rendered. But not the trainee's emotions: fear, doubt, revulsion. "That's what we have to capture to make a game that teaches something useful," says ICT creative director Jim Korris.

Why did the Army back ICT--an eclectic group of video game makers, tech PhDs, and Hollywood producers--to develop the next generation of military training tools? Because they realized that the cutting edge for such technology exists not in the labs of Silicon Valley but in the electronic games and toys strewn about the rooms of 10-year-olds everywhere. "They've embedded Newtonian physics into most of the [new games], so when a weapon drops to the ground, it bounces and slides properly," notes Greg E. Blonder, a venture capitalist at Morgenthaler Ventures. "That's really impressive." Adds Michael Hawley, director of special projects at Massachusetts Institute of Technology: "Toys are sparkplugs for the imagination. They'll drive technology development into the future."

Indeed, toy inventors are pushing the boundaries of artificial intelligence, speech synthesis, wireless communications, and networked virtual reality. What's more, they are figuring out how to cram huge chunks of realistic graphics, dialogue, and sensory cues onto tiny, inexpensive computer chips. That's what enables the toy steering wheel for the video game Grand Turismo 3 to bump when an on-screen race car jumps an obstacle. It's what allows Fisher-Price's robot Kasey the Kinderbot to do the hokeypokey, with dexterity some factory robots might envy.

Robotics provides some of the best examples of how the military has tapped into the creativity behind toys. In July, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) handed a $5.5 million grant to Carnegie Mellon scientists who are designing a robotic Humvee--inspired by a toy car--that can climb on top of obstacles and other vehicles, and right itself if it flips over. "We're trying to extend the idea to a large vehicle," says John E. Bares, director of Carnegie Mellon's National Robotics Engineering Consortium, who submitted a video of his son's Tyco Super Rebound in his DARPA grant application.

Other industries are benefitting from innovations in toys. The technology that adds sensory effects such as bumps and rumbles to games, for example, has been built into machines that train medical students. Sony Corp.'s (SNE ) robotic dog, Aibo, is poised to evolve from a toy-like playmate to a bona fide home-office assistant. The latest models can film streaming video or download their masters' e-mail wirelessly from their PCs. Eventually, such robots may work in teams, Blonder observes. "You can now have groups of [toy] robots that interact amongst themselves in ways that appear intelligent," he says. "That kind of collective behavior is going to be used for tasks, as opposed to entertainment. These are still the early days."

Toymakers are sought-after industrial partners because they speed the development of new technology and do so affordably. Americans spent more than $11 billion on video games, consoles, and electronic toys last year, according to industry researcher NPD Funworld. But most moms won't shell out thousands of dollars for a plaything. So at Fisher-Price (MAT ), the inventors of Kasey the robot used specialized speech-compression techniques to increase the content on a standard audio processor nearly a hundredfold. The $75 robot can lead preschoolers through more than 80 hours of songs, games, and lessons.

Game consoles, meanwhile, pack the latest advances in fast data transfer, graphics, and audio processing into boxes that cost just $200. The internal hard drive on Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT ) Xbox, for instance, can store parts of a game as it's playing out, then regurgitate it for special effects, such as instant replay, complete with personalized commentary. "You can go back and see all the shots you made and missed," raves 13-year-old Clayton Schoeny as he plays NBA Live 2002 on his Xbox in Redondo Beach, Calif. "You can see the entire game in slow motion. It's crazy."

Consumer demand fuels ever more innovation. Gamers weren't content to sit alone in their dens hunting dragons or creating fictional cities. So publishers started building entire fantasy worlds in cyberspace and hosting thousands of players in so-called "massively multiplayer" games. Building a network backbone robust enough to support these cyberworlds has forced the world's top tech companies back to the drawing board. IBM (IBM ), for example, is devising a novel class of computer chips that can manipulate data and produce images on the fly, based on the commands of thousands of online gamers simultaneously. "We started with a totally new way of thinking," says Bijan Davari, vice-president of semiconductor research and development for IBM.

The advances in silicon for toys can produce startling results, prefiguring future applications for offices and factories. Consider Electronic Arts' (ERTS ) upcoming The Sims Online--the Internet version of the video game that allows players to construct fictional suburban lives. Players will interact with one another rather than with the drab computer-generated people in the offline version. Each region of the game, which will appear this fall, will be able to support 2,000 players at a time. They'll work together through their on-screen Sims counterparts to start businesses, build bridges, and perhaps even fall in love. Real-world applications are likely to follow--starting with the military, which is looking at similar technology to conduct online team exercises involving troops all over the world.

Virtual sensations are another important spin-off from toys. Video games were some of the first commercial products to incorporate so-called force feedback--the use of vibrations and other sensory cues to simulate the feeling of, say, a machine gun recoiling or a tennis ball hitting the sweet spot of a racket. Immersion Corp. in San Francisco, which licenses such technology to others, is finding a growing market outside the game industry. In medical training applications, machines can replicate the sensation of pushing a needle against the arterial wall, using sound and motion to create different scenarios--a wailing baby, perhaps, or a patient in pain. It's a far cry from old techniques, like sticking needles into plastic arms and oranges. "The neat thing is that you feel the give and take," says Adam Levine, assistant professor at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York, which uses Immersion's simulators. "It's as if you were piercing through real human tissue." With sound, sight, and touch accounted for, the next big frontier may be virtual smell.

Ultimately, technology from toys could transform the way business is conducted in every industry. Companies that use virtual reality in training today may one day employ game-like, shared simulations hosting thousands of workers simultaneously. And robots could assist the sick or elderly. Last year, a dozen robots combed the wreckage of the World Trade Center looking for victims. "This proves that robots can be useful," says Hiroaki Kitano, who heads a government-funded robot R&D project in Japan.

Children growing up with the seeds of this technology constantly push it forward. At the Carnegie Mellon Robotic Autonomy course this summer in Moffett Field, Calif., Luz Cabrales, 17, built SpongeBots, a species that runs, walks, and dances. "What if a robot could sense and feel, as we do?" she asks. It could help the disabled, she muses--and better yet, it might actually want to. As a youth and an inventor, Cabrales straddles an important line. Tomorrow's most innovative technology is in the minds of children--and the creative inventors who continue to dream up remarkable ways to entertain them.

By Arlene Weintraub

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