Main image: Anki's Vector robot
The advent of cheaper processors and some clever software flourishes has meant that we're seeing a huge rise in connected toys that interact with children, as opposed to those children simply play with – and there's a smart element to these toys that elevates them above more basic kid-friendly gadgets.
Whether it’s an AR headset, a robot that will help you learn to code, or one of the most lifelike dolls you've ever seen, these are toys that have been designed not just to impress children but – most importantly – to leave a lasting impression.
Below we showcase some of the smartest toys around, all of them packed with innovation that’s sure to spark the curiosity of little minds.
1. Lenovo Star Wars Jedi Challenges
This AR headset by Lenovo was one of the most impressive Star Wars gadgets to come out in support of the latest trilogy. The package contains a headset that transports a child into the world of Star Wars, where they can do battle with their favorite friends or foes, brandishing the accompanying lightsaber. Lenovo has been expanding what can be done with the device, too, recently adding the ability to do one-on-one battle with real-life friends; you can also play Holochess through the device.
2. Anki Vector
Anki Cozmo was one of the most popular toys around when it was first released, combining the idea of a cute desk toy with a robot. Its personality, and the games you could play with it, made it a toy that was equipped for lasting fun. Anki Vector is the upgraded version, pitched at a slightly older audience – this is mainly because it will soon be able to tap into your smart home. The real USP here, though, is how autonomous it is. Where Cozmo, was app-controlled, Vector works on its own – which is pretty mind-blowing.
3. Wonder Workshop Dash Robot
Dash is a programmable robot with a difference. It will teach your kids how to code, while offering up hours of entertainment in the process. It's primarily aimed at children aged 6-11, is around six inches tall and whizzes about on rotating spheres. There are a bunch of apps that work with the device, all packed with tutorials on how to code. The coding is nicely simplified, but if you just want to watch Dash do its own thing there are a number of preset modes to choose from.
4. Sphero Bolt
Sphero has revealed that it's shifting away somewhat from its branded toys – so while we may not see new Star Wars-infused kit for a while, the good news is that the company is really doubling down on what it's great at: educational toys that are part smart, all awesome. The Sphero Bolt is an app-enabled robotic ball that has a really cool LED matrix inside its see-through chassis, coupled with some advanced sensors. The Bolt will teach your kids how to program, and they'll have a whole lot of fun doing it.
5. LittleBits Electronic Music Inventor Kit
LittleBits has found a brilliant niche in the toy market – self-assembly kits that, when built, create a brilliant connected, programmable toy. Its latest innovation is a synth guitar that can be programmed to play a number of tracks and sounds. Not only does the guitar look great, but there are 12 activities that go with it, thanks to an accompanying app. The brilliant thing about LittleBits is that these kits aren’t the slickest-looking, and for good reason – the things you make look like they’ve been put together by a mad professor, and that only adds to their endearing quality.
6. Bedtime Stories
Bedtime Stories is an innovative app that takes the idea of kids’ storytelling and makes it interactive. Designed for children up to the age of 12, it’s based around story ‘worlds’, spanning multiple genres, and has a vast amount of content that you can access. If that isn’t enough, the app has a feature that lets you build your own story with your child, making it as tailored to them as you want.
7. Lego Technic Bugatti Chiron
Okay, you can obviously buy the Lego Technic Bugatti Chiron but we’re not talking about the small model kit here, but the life-size version that Lego created because, well, it could. Oh, and did we mention that it's fully working and drivable? It took a team of 16 specialists, including design, mechanical and electrical experts 13,000 man-hours to create the car. Over one million bits of Lego Technics were used, which is ridiculously impressive.
8. Luvabella Doll
The Luvabella Doll is definitely a divisive thing. Some will think it’s the coolest toy ever, with its true-to-life facial expressions, engaging personality, and the fact that it moves around pretty much like a real baby. Others – such as those who've seen Child’s Play one too many times – may find it a little creepy. It’s an impressive product, though, merging animatronics with an old-school toy favorite. Another neat feature is Luvabella Doll’s ability to mimic baby noises that, over time, start to become real words – which is charming, unless those words are “Hi, I’m Chucky – wanna play?”
9. Anki Overdrive
Not content with making little robots (see Vector), Anki has also decided to revitalize the remote-control car market with its Overdrive range. Regularly dubbed 'Scalextric on steroids', the idea behind the game is to combine smartphone gaming with real-life toy cars that whiz around specially created tracks. There’s also a Fast & Furious edition of the game, which has got to be one of the best, albeit most obvious, movie tie-ins around.
10. Ultimate Lightning McQueen
The amount of detail that Sphero, the folks behind Bolt, have crammed into the Lightning McQueen smart remote-controlled car is simply stunning. Sphero teamed up with Disney Pixar to make sure the animatronics in the face, the voices, and the eye animations were spot on, to essentially bring the character you see in the movies to life. The result is an expensive but fantastic app-controlled gadget that sets the bar for what can be done in the connected toy space.
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Marc Chacksfield is the Editor In Chief, Shortlist.com at DC Thomson. He started out life as a movie writer for numerous (now defunct) magazines and soon found himself online - editing a gaggle of gadget sites, including TechRadar, Digital Camera World and Tom's Guide UK. At Shortlist you'll find him mostly writing about movies and tech, so no change there then.