By Parija Bhatnagar, CNN/Money staff writer
NEW YORK (CNN/Money) – Hasbro Inc., the No. 2 toymaker after Mattel, is gearing up to make its first foray into the hot market for electronic learning toys and games with its new “ION” educational gaming console.
Over the past few years, LeapFrog Enterprises has been the leading innovator in this space.
More recently, however, LeapFrog’s been forced to make room for other industry players in an arena that it pioneered.
Some of the new entrants have included Mattel with its “PowerTouch Learning System” and VTech’s “VSmile TV Learning System.”
Now Hasbro, too, is elbowing its way in.
The ION Gaming System from Hasbro’s Playskool unit, which debuts in the fall, uses the same patented technology that was first deployed in Sony’s popular EyeToy gaming console introduced in 2003.
Similar to EyeToy, Hasbro’s learning system uses a small motion-sensitive camera that connects to a console which plugs into a television set. The camera lets kids actually appear live on TV. And by moving their arms, legs or their entire body, children become a part of the game.
The five games created for the ION system are based on popular animated children’s TV shows such as “Dora the Explorer,” “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “Blue’s Clues” from Nickleodeon.
For instance, the “Willie Whale Tales” game is designed to help preschoolers learn how to spell. Willie shoots bubbles filled with individual letters into the air. Kids then have to pop the bubbles with the correct letters that form a perfect word.
“The technology is just like the EyeToy but Sony’s product is an electronic videogame. There’s no learning component associated with it. We’re the only one to have now used this technology to create an educational game for kids between the ages of three to seven,” said Duncan Billing, Hasbro’s chief marketing officer.
Besides spelling, the games are designed to help older children develop other skills such as reading, math and problem solving.
Said Billing, “There’s even a parental check button on the system to let parents track their kid’s progress, see what game they’ve been playing and for how long.”
Anita Frazier, entertainment industry analyst with market research firm NPD Group, said Hasbro’s arrival into the electronic learning toys category makes sense.
“It’s definitely an attractive target area for growth given that kids are becoming tech savvy much earlier,” said Frazier. According to NPD, the educational toy category is currently estimated at about 7 percent of the $20 billion U.S. toy market.
Said Frazier, “Educational toys account for 50 percent of all toy sales to kids aged five years or under. This is a category where parents make the primary purchase decision, not the kids. It’s definitely a hot area for toymakers.”
Jim Silver, an industry analyst and publisher of the Toy Book and Toy Wishes magazines, thinks ION could be “one of the coolest things for 2005.” “It has ‘hit’ written all over it,” said Silver.
“The difference between ION and other electronic learning systems like LeapFrog’s Leappad is that this is a game that makes kids move, play and learn all at the same time,” said Silver. “Kids aren’t just sitting in place while they play. With the growing obesity problem in the U.S. among kids, parents will love this new product.”
Priced at $119.99, the ION system isn’t exactly cheap. Could the steep price turn off potential buyers? Billings doesn’t think so.
“Honestly, we’re not thinking about the price but the value of the product which we feel parents will recognize,” he said.