Wednesday, July 13, 2016

A Very Friendly Robot

Long, long ago, I had the memorable experience of heading Playskool's R & D Department for several years when it was located in Chicago. Actually, it was more of a D & D Department (design and development) since little "research' was done in Chicago. "Research" was handled at Milton Bradley's corporate offices in Springfield, MA.

Each year. D & D was to create new preschool playthings with input from Playskool's Marketing Department. Unquestioningly, the most successful project launched during my time in the Department was to replace a clunky, mechanical action Computer with "something new and more exciting".

That "something new" assignment lead to Alphie The Robot; a friendly looking space age character full of beeps, hoops, music, LEDs, and play modes powered by a 9V battery. Unbeknownst to us at the outset of the project in 1977, that original Alphie would enjoy sufficient longevity to become an early preschool brand and appear in nine ideations over its market life from the introductory year of 1978 until 2011!

The "toy gods" looked favorably on the project from day one. An all-star team was assembled to make Alphie happen. There were many key players including:

Michael Meyers who had just joined Milton Bradley as Vice President Corporate R & D after successful product years at Child Guidance and Marx toys. Mike pushed his premonition that Star Wars, then about to burst onto big screens everywhere, would make "space" toys a hot commodity. His years heading significant R & D projects made him the perfect liaison between MB's budding electronics group and Playskool's design specs for Alphie.  Mike's important sidebar contribution was the serendipitous suggestion to name the then nameless toy after his pet cat, Alphie! Suggestion given; suggestion trademarked!

Paul Lapidus managed the talented Playskool designers who were tasked with creating an appealing space creature acceptable to preschool mothers and the internal corporate panel of critical observers. Through the years, Alphie would get several design "makeovers" and dimensional changes, but it was the toy's initial form and functions that won the hearts and minds of the toy trade and huge numbers of consumers.

Greg Hyman and Larry Greenberg had just been retained by Mel Taft, Milton Bradley's Sr. VP Corporate R & D to consult on the company's electronic projects. The timing was perfect. There couldn't have been two more co-operative and knowledgeable external partners. Taking Playskool specs for the toy's functions, Hyman and Greenberg's first step was to provide a "prove-it" breadboard and when approved to then layout the circuitry on a PC board that would become Alphie's microprocessor "brain" in production. Though Greenberg passed unexpectedly in 1992, Greg Hyman shepherded all eight subsequent Alphie electronic ideations as the friendly robot grew into a major Hasbro brand.

From that tip-off assignment for original Alphie, Greg Hyman went on to co-create and license over 120 state of the art toys including notables like Major Morgan, Talking Barney, Baby All Gone and Tickle Me Elmo. Documentation on much of Greg's toy invention can be viewed at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY.

Through a generous gift from Hyman and Greenberg to the Hasbro Children's Hospital in Providence, RI, Alphie appears on a plaque in an examining room to offer a friendly, welcoming face to little tykes daily.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

An Ultimate Toy Maker

Maker Faires have been described as "part science fair, part county fair, and part entirely something new". You can add to that description, "part toy fair". The Faires are "gatherings of tech enthusiasts, crafters, educators, tinkerers, hobbyists, engineers, authors, artists, students and commercial exhibitors of all ages". Add mass marketers and trade buyers to that demographic mix and a Faire rivals Javits or Nuremberg. These well attended Maker Faires can be found globally with over 100 affiliated events around the world each year. A recent Faire in San Mateo, CA, now in its tenth year running, drew over 150,000 makers and kids over a weekend!

Bob Knetzger, a professional toy designer and inventor for over forty years saw the connection between his creative skills and interests to those of many hobbyists and toy lovers in the Maker Faire audiences. In his career, Bob built many prototypes and models to demonstrate his and partner Rick Gurolnick's ideas at Neotoy in their attempts to license new toy concepts. Among those many concepts was the wildly popular line of Dr. Dreadful toys. His experiences were more than enough to get Maker Media to publish his fascinating book: MAKE:FUN! Create Your Own Toys, Games, and Amusements.

In MAKE:FUN!, Bob lays out the tools and step by step plans for turning everyday materials into clever toys, games, and amusements; some of which have recognizable relationships to successful commercial originals. The book contains 40 highly illustrated projects that show how to use simple electronics, mold and sculpt plastics, and assemble toys that demonstrate scientific principles and  how many popular playthings work.

Among my favorites is the Mad Monster Candy Snatch Game. Perhaps the attraction to Mad Monster is that Knetzger uses the principles of the classic Operation Game to make a clever candy dispenser. Rather than withdrawing plastic pieces from Cavity Sam, a steady hand with the forceps earns a candy treat! Touch the Mad Monster in an attempt to extricate a piece of candy and he flashes, crackles, and says: "You make the Monster mad--You lose!" There is no candy treat for a shaky hand.

Hobbyists with a love of toys and desires to make them will find MAKE:FUN! a must have publication. Perhaps some budding inventor in search of a creative spark will springboard Bob's meticulous plans for the forty projects into a totally new toy. For Bob Knetzger, that would validate his long held contention that original ideas occur "when two old things bump into each other to make something new". It's a book that fits neatly into any toy inventor's library.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

A Very Special Toy Inventor

Ralph Baer, inventor of Hasbro's Simon, the widely popular electronic memory game introduced in 1979, passed in 2014. While some may remember him as the creator of Simon, the world will remember him as the "Father of the Video Game". It is likely that title got the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History to make Ralph and his workshop part of their national story and a focal point of the Year of Innovation in the Museum's Innovation Wing.

Ralph has good company in the Museum among the likes of SC Johnson, inventor of the Ziplock Brand bag, Kirk Christiansen, inventor of the Lego block, Clarence L. Fender, inventor of the electric guitar, Earl Tupper, inventor of Tupperware, and of course, Thomas Alva Edison, inventor of the incandescent electric lamp.

Longtime industry friends, Richard and Sheryl Levy made a recent visit to the Smithsonian to view the tribute to Ralph. It made Richard recall the day speaking with Ralph on the phone when the Smithsonian was at Ralph's home in Manchester, New Hampshire collecting elements for the  Museum exhibit. "They are collecting everything that is not nailed down," whispered Ralph into the phone. "I have some stuff hidden under the staircase so they don't take everything."

"You cannot miss the Smithsonian exhibit" reports Richard. "It is the first exhibit you see as you enter the West Wing. Without doubt, the Smithsonian curators put tremendous value on Ralph's contributions to American innovation." And consumers to this day continue to see the unique play value in Ralph's Simon game nearly forty years after its introduction.

Phil Orbanes, Vice Chairman of Winning Moves Games, remembers Ralph as "a down-to-earth genius". Orbanes met him the year after Simon exploded onto the games' scene. "Unlike so many boastful inventors, Baer took success in stride and treated everyone he met as an equal." Speaking of Ralph's inventive skills, Orbanes said, "Once he got an idea, he could build it. In the early years that meant using a soldering iron to create the circuitry. But in time, he taught himself to program EPROMs (chips) and even build plastic cases and related parts to see his concepts come to life. He was an inventing marvel. Nothing deterred his enthusiasm for a new idea."

Originally a native New Englander, Ralph spent months in his later years in the land of the Sunshine Santas (that concentration of inventor talent in south Florida), where he was able to visit frequently with the Levys and discuss among other things the state of the toy industry, and of course, invention.

Ralph was among some 80 professional toy and game inventors we profiled with their personal advice and tips in the The Toy and Game Inventors Handbook. You can see his pithy remarks in that publication.

If the Smithsonian exhibit in D.C. doesn't work for your travel schedule, you can see Ralph's work memorialized at The Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, NY.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Toy Industry Jargon

Every industry has its own jargon. When businesses communicate, they often intersperse acronyms and words inherent to their specific industry. Most likely, an industry's jargon may be so limited in use that the words do not appear in an authoritative language reference like the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

In The Toy and Game Inventor's Handbook, we included a glossary of 475 words that we felt were common and basic to the toy industry. Since we are in a "fun" business, we took the liberty to write definitions more playful and whimsical than those that would meet the stringent standards of dictionary editors. Here are several examples of industry jargon. Our definitions are in italics:

Dog: (with all respect to the ASPCA and my beloved 16 year old Tibetan Terrier, Denver, who is one sweet dog)
A product that's dead at retail

Lawyers: (guardians of the industry)
The only people who consistently make money and turn a profit

Yawn: (a bad omen signaled by the viewer during an inventor's pitch)
A boring product idea 

I recently came up with a new word, "inventortainment". To me the word characterizes inventor pitch time in today's world now that showing a new idea is often broadcast to marketers/backers on video screens versus former confidential one-on-one private meetings between inventors and company representatives.

Inventortainment is not yet part of the toy industry jargon. But someday, if the word gains widespread  "toyspeak", it may even reach a place in those authoritative consumer dictionaries. After all, every year, Merriam-Webster adds hundreds of newly minted words and acronyms that have gained popular usage in the English language.

So if you help to "jargonize" my word around the toy business, it may pass the high standards of dictionary editors. Here is the full definition: inventortainment: (n) an inventor's pitch effort of an innovative concept to marketers or backers in hopes of gaining a licensing agreement or the financial support to commercially develop the proprietary idea.

A sincere "thank you" if you add my new word to your jargon.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

What is Inventortainment?

"Life's a Pitch"!! That's the title of Chapter 7 in The Toy and Game Inventor's Handbook (Inventors Handbook) where we advise readers on "how to" license ideas to toy industry marketers. Inventors hope that their idea is the next mega-hit and marketers hope for the next WOW! product that will leap off toy aisle shelves or through Amazon screens. When inventor meets marketer to show a new idea, it's "pitch time", but oh my, how the modus operandi in toy world today has changed.

At one time, the traditional inventor new idea pitch was done across a table in a face-to-face meeting. Inventors would come to a company's offices or the company would send emissaries to the inventor's place of business. A hands-on demo was de rigueur. But with the emergence of new media techniques and with detached global licensing participants often viewing a pitch, digital demos are more common. Skype, Face Time, video conferencing, or a private channel YouTube video all make the inventor-marketer contact impersonal. What was once a very confidential and private pitch has become widely disclosed on screens everywhere.

Add to this paradigm shift in new product pitch time the broad, public screen exposure of concepts on Shark Tank, Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and the like. In fact, a You Tube pitch often gets archived to become a basic form of consumer promotion when the product is marketed. Check out Swingy Thing Pitch.

Yet the inventor's goal remains the same; to secure a license or financial backing that gets the idea to market. Today, the pitch has become, in some cases, a form of entertainment for a wide populous of viewers. Pitch time has become show time. The inventor and idea are on center stage providing a unique form of inventortainment to an influential audience that can make or break the future of the new idea. Today, we can add inventortainment to toy industry jargon.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Toy & Game Agents

There are literary agents, sports agents, secret agents, and a whole host of government agents. My all time favorite fictional agent from early days of TV was Agent 86. I loved that this whimsical agent could communicate through the bottom of a shoe long before the current ubiquitous iPhone.

When writing The Toy and Game Inventor's Handbook, we detailed the important roles of toy and game agents: evaluating marketability of an idea, connecting ideas with potential marketers, and representing all facets of an inventor's interest in negotiating a contract. Inventors and agents become true business partners in the creative process. These are just a few of the popular products in the toy industry licensed by agents.

Here is a link to a longtime, active agent. Marra Design Associates
See The Toy and Game Handbook for a more complete listing of agents.-

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Co-Author Meets Co-Author

Always good to see co-author, Richard C. Levy, anytime, anywhere to rehash issues covered in the third edition of  The Toy and Game Inventor's Handbook . I particularly enjoy annual meetings in his south Florida "war room" with its impressive floor to ceiling display of toys and games he has licensed during his long, active career.
If we miss meeting in the Sunshine State, New York Toy Fair offers opportunities to exchange "state of the industry" perspectives in the aisles of Javits. For the past two Toy Fairs, I have enjoyed Richard's Be Terrific appearances in onsite interviews.

Richard's 2016 NYCTF interview:

Richard's 2015 NYCTF interview: