Holy High Tech, Batman!

Many columnists have a tendency at this time of year to cover two important topics: looking back at the year’s most important happenings and making new year prognostications. Not me. I’m going to buck the trend and talk about toys.

I don’t have kids of my own, so I’m woefully behind on my knowledge of what’s new and exciting in the world of toys. Thankfully, my office is filled with people who have little ones. It was abuzz with chatter about which great toys the kids would be getting for Christmas.

What caught my attention, of course, relates to our industry. Mattel teamed up with The WB and Veil Interactive Technologies to launch toys that react to the latest Batman animated TV series, including the hero’s way cool car: the Batmobile.

The show’s broadcast will transmit digital data to the toy using Veil technology. From the press release, it sounds similar to VBI (define), but better. The signal is invisible to human eyes, but as long as the toy’s receiver has line of sight with the TV, it’ll recognize the signal and respond accordingly. The toy car will rev its engine when the Batmobile does on screen, for example. It has other sounds and lights that react to what’s going on in the program.

The data stream also powers “secret messages” from Batman, character profiles, storyline backgrounds, upgraded Batmobile features, and more. The car doesn’t always react immediately to the signal. Some things are live, while others are stored and played out later. Imagine watching the program and later playing out other missions based on what you just watched. Sounds pretty cool to me.

I’m a total geek, in case you can’t tell. As I child, I was into the latest stupid gadget toy (the same can be said of my adult tastes in entertainment). Laser Tag was big with my friends. We had tons of GI Joe toys and all the gadgets (remember GI Joe headset walkie-talkies?), great Star Wars stuff, even some Battlestar Galactica toys. But nothing compares to how cool and high-tech this Batman toy is. I may find myself at the local toy store with one at the checkout, telling the teenager cashing me out all about my nephew who’ll just flip over this thing. I can see the look on his face now; seeing right through my pathetic ruse, shaking his head over how sad it all is.

Interactive TV is slowly evolving. I, for one, cannot wait for it to fully arrive. I predicted years ago PVRs (define) would be the gateway to interactive TV. I thought it would happen pretty quickly based on projections for PVR growth, but things have unfolded much more slowly. Oddly, most progress in this space has actually been made with stuff that’s not really on TV or online. The Batmobile is a great example: really cool functionality that creates an incredible extension of the TV program into physical playtime.

But it’s sad, in a way, that WebTV (excuse me, MSNTV) and PVRs are the best interactive TV to date. True, digital cable enables increasingly more, from clicks to screens with more info, to replicated PVR functionality with a potentially more expansive library in VOD (define) platforms. But all in all, interactive TV’s promise has gone largely unfilled.

The new Batmobile toy reminds me, in some ways, of the Winky Dink animated series. It represented the zenith of interactive television in the ’50s (or so I’ve read. I’m not quite old enough to remember this). Kids could send away for the” Winky Dink and You” kit. It was a clear overlay kids would put on top of the TV screen, on which they could draw with the included crayons. During the program, Winky might need to cross a river and there was no bridge, for example. The TV announcer would instruct viewers to use their kits to draw a bridge and save Winky from his predicament.

Whether we’re talking about an acetate overlay for your TV screen, or a car that receives signals embedded in the broadcast, it’s the same basic idea: enhance the viewing experience by making it interactive. Judging by what functionalities have been predicted, or what we may know as possible, both are relatively primitive interactive TV applications. Still, it’s pretty darn cool. Although it may not be happening as fast as I’d like, it’s still progress.

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