Last weekend, New York City’s Javits Center was host to a trade show unlike any other. The annual Toy Fair offered no shortage of colorful characters, tech gadgets and new releases slated to hit the $26 billion US toy market—all while providing a window into several key trends playing out in the 12-and-under market.

Progressive play

Though often beloved, dolls have been criticizing for reinforcing the traditional gender stereotypes that have faced increasing backlash. In recent years, dolls have become more diverse, reflecting girls in STEM or dolls with a variety of body types for the first time. This year’s Toy Fair, however, pushed the gender envelope in new ways.

One of the most anticipated toys of the fair was Tonner Doll’s Jazz Jennings doll, the first doll to represent a transgender individual. At 16 years old, Jazz Jennings is the star of TLC’s docuseries “I Am Jazz,” as well as an activist and YouTube vlogger whose achievements have been recognized by Time Magazine, Teen Vogue and President Obama.

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Left: Jazz Jennings doll box set. Right: Jazz's red carpet look.
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Tonner Dolls, which has previously featured other groundbreaking individuals including plus-size model Emme, struck up the partnership with Jennings after founder Robert Tonner was moved by Jennings’ story in an early

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. However, although the packaging features Jennings’ name, the doll steers clear of using her gender identification to define the product, choosing instead to celebrate Jazz as she is.

“It depicts her at her age, and it’s just a cute, pretty little girl doll,” said Michelle Hodge, a Tonner representative. “It’s a beautiful doll. Nothing else.”

Elsewhere, Boy Story made its first appearance at the Toy Fair following a successful 2016 Kickstarter campaign. Boy Story’s “action dolls” are a unique toy that blends traditional dolls with elements of action figures like the ability to contort limbs into poses. According to a representative, Boy Story dolls not only tackle the stigma around doll play for boys, but also seek to expand girls’ perceptions of dolls.

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Boy Story's 'Mason' and 'Billy' dolls, launched in November.

Boy Story is not alone in their mission: Earlier this month, American Girl launched its first boy doll, Logan Everett. American Girl and Tonner Dolls have both received their share of negative feedback, from doll traditionalists as well as progressives who question their motives. But both launches demonstrate that the toy industry will continue its attempts to keep pace with shifting ideas and morals surrounding gender.

AR meets real-world play

Augmented reality was one of the breakout technologies of 2016, so it was no surprise to see several new companies at the Toy Fair adapting AR into games. New offerings that managed to blend the excitement of AR with traditional, physical elements of play were especially attention-grabbing.

“It’s inevitable that kids will be using devices,” a spokesperson for Pai Technology told the Innovation Group. “But [parents] want that distraction to be safe and fun. It’s about making sure the developmental process kids do need to go through isn’t overshadowed by tech.”

Pai Technology recently launched Ocean Pets, which lets children mold fish from clay and then upload their creations into an AR-based virtual fishbowl. Next month, the company plans to launch the interactive “TJ and the Beanstalk” storybook, which combines reading with AR-enabled pages that come to life on a smartphone or tablet. Future launches include the Pai Kodee robot, which teaches coding but can also interact with real-world objects through AR.

Ocean Pets Video

UK-based Mardles is launching a similar line of AR-enabled storybooks, available globally in June. Because virtual reality headsets are not approved for children under 12, Mardles’ interactive 360° videos offer a different form of immersive storytelling, according to a Mardles representative—one that doesn’t sacrifice literary development. Mardles also offers AR-enabled sticker books and coloring books, which, in addition to bringing drawings to life, offer educational facts throughout the experience.

Although the viral success of 2016’s Pokémon Go showed how much AR-based games appeal to children, concerns about the impact of technology on childhood development could lead parents to limit screen time. Standout companies will find ways to use new technology to enhance, not detract from, real-world play.

For more, see our October story, Augmented reality evolves.

Grown-up Tech

The Toy Fair also reflected other recent advances in technology. Following the home invasions staged by Alexa and Google Home, several companies are developing voice companies for children. Mattel’s Aristotle was on display, an AI voice assistant designed to understand children. Far more promising, however, was the Woobo, an AI companion installed in a kid-friendly plush companion. The Woobo begins shipping in October 2017.

Kid-friendly tech also took its cues from adult products in other areas. Octopus by Joy, an Apple Watch-like wearable designed to teach children good habits and time management skills, made its first appearance at the fair. The Kickstarter-funded project is currently available for pre-orders. As both products have yet to hit the market, it will be interesting to see how the “kidult” tech market fares.

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Octopus by Joy

Finally, robotics and coding toys were abundant at the fair, with companies including Zozbot WowWee and Technology Will Save Us offering to teach children the basics of coding and programming.

For more on kid-friendly tech, see our trends roundup from CES 2017.

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