Visions of Pentium-Encoded Athletic Shoes Dance in His Head

Michael Schrage is a writer, consultant and research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He writes this column independently for The Times

Saccharine purple dinosaurs and digital hedgehogs are clearly toys from Christmas Past. Mighty Morphin Power Rangers are toys of Christmas Present. But what the Dickens might toys of Christmas Future look like?

The toy and video game businesses top $15 billion in sales annually, but techno-trends suggest that the market will become even bigger as more innovation seeps in. Looking back from, say, 20 years out, what new techno-toys will have emerged to redefine tomorrow’s childhoods? Once again, Sega, Nintendo, Hasbro and Mattel are welcome to draw inspiration--or Angst --from the following speculations. . . .

BarbieWear Ware: Alternately derided by feminists as “the gross perpetuation of gender stereotyping” and hailed by computerniks as “a clever new tool that promotes software literacy for young women in a user-friendly manner,” BarbieWear Ware offers computer-aided couture for tomorrow’s best-dressed dolls.

Instead of merely selecting clothes for their favorite dolls, budding Donna Karans, Nicole Millers and Gianni Versaces can design them on their home computers. No fewer than two gigabytes of memory provides an overwhelming cornucopia of global and historic costumes dating from ancient China to 2001. That makes BarbieWear Ware educational as well as entertaining. Pull-down menus let the young designers pick fabrics, textures, ornaments and accessories. Dresses can be modeled on the three-dimensional solid-animation Barbie that can be rotated on screen.

Finished designing? Hit the “Transmit” key and the design is whisked through the Internet to the automated BarbieFab, where the dress is automatically cut and sewn to the child’s specifications. It’s then FedExed back the next day--usually with a coupon to help Mom shop for clothes.


BarbieWear Ware is part of ToyNet--the Internet service that lets children turn virtual toys into real ones. Particularly popular is Design-a-Saurs, which lets aspiring paleontologists build their own software dinosaurs for fabrication. WarpFactor9 is another big hit: It lets them assemble spacecraft and rocket ships from parts that include Jules Verne and H.G. Wells images as well as Star Trek and NASA prototypes.

The Dr. DNA Home Diagnostics Kit: Very popular with the children of parents who grew up watching the O.J. Simpson “Trial of the Century.” Want to genetically diagnose your best friend or worst enemy? No need to draw blood--just get a spit sample and run it through a few easy tests. Two hours later, you can discover how tall your friend might grow (plus or minus three inches); whether they’re naturally shy or aggressive, which side of the bell curve they’re on, what autoimmune diseases they might have and whether they’ll be bald by 30.

The kit packages obsolete but still potent biotechnology diagnostics into an easy-to-use bundle of test tubes, reagents, DNA probes, restriction enzymes and paper chromatography. What chemistry sets were to the 1950s, Dr. DNA Home Diagnostics Kit is to the 2010s--an engaging way to explore the mysteries of science. It’s quick; it’s easy; and it’s safe. WARNING: Not FDA-approved for medical diagnostics.

SmartShooz: The only shoes with a Pentium inside. With millions of microprocessors sold for scrap, enterprising entrepreneurs create a new kind of intelligent shoe, one loaded with silicon and plug-compatible with any Windows or Macintosh PC. SmartShooz come with pedometer, accelerometer, digital strain gauge and clock--as well as a flexible liquid-crystal display on the tongue--so young athletes can see how far and fast they’ve run, how high they jumped and whether they’re putting too much strain on their feet and ankles.

A special interface lets the shoe plug into the personal computer via a cable for a more complete readout of activity during a run or a basketball game. The motto “How can you play smart if your shoes are stupid?” beats out “Just do it” in the perennial athletic shoe marketing wars.

A major problem emerges in 1999: Floating point processor on the Pentium miscalculates when basketball players who weigh precisely 174.8 pounds move three steps to the left and cut right. The shoe crashes and causes sprained ankles. SmartShooz insists that only 1 person in 24 billion who doesn’t weigh exactly 174.8 pounds risks a sprained ankle.


The Moonwalk With Michael Digital DanceMat: In yet another comeback bid this decade, the Prince of Pop endorses a new personal computer interface that accentuates his uncanny ability to move and glide.

The Moonwalk Mat--either 4 by 4 feet or or 6 by 6--is placed on the floor and links directly into the PC. When the child steps on the mat, the Michael Jackson character moves on screen. Special wristbands and an infrared belt let the computer track body movements; a proprietary algorithm interpolates all the motion into a smooth software rendition of a dancing Michael. The software comes, of course, with several of Michael’s greatest hits so children can dance to the music.

In an effort to capture the silver market, the makers of the Moonwalk Mat will offer a version that lets pairs of dancers do the Frug, the Twist, the Shag, waltz, minuets or any dance they choose. “It’s sort of like dancing karaoke for seniors,” asserts the Moonwalk Mat’s marketing vice president, Arthur Murray Jr. (no relation).

Michael Schrage is a writer, consultant and research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He writes this column independently for The Times. He can be reached at by electronic mail via the Internet.

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