Digital Training Wheels

Looking back at a bunch of toy electronics that may have latently inspired the tech that we use today. Might as well hook ’em young.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: For a moment, consider the evolutionary space between the original Game Boy and the iPad. Both defined the way kids would experience computers in a portable format, but were so defining that they kind of set the template for everyone else. But it was clear that the Game Boy was a mere plateau of technological advancement, which allowed some technological wiggle room. Meanwhile, the iPad was considered such a technological ideal that many companies just copied its basic design, killing off true evolution until, say, the Nintendo Switch. That leaves a gap of about 22 years in which handheld gadgets for kids were really freaking experimental and interesting. And with that in mind, today’s Tedium looks back in time at 10 portable electronic toys—some well-known, some obscure—that highlighted how creative toy-makers were when the canvas was completely open. (And we’re including commercials for each, because, hey, commercials!) Maybe you played with a few of these back in the day. — Ernie @ Tedium


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1. Etch A Sketch Animator

The era: Late 1980s

What it brought to the table: Animation, the ability to edit, storage.

I actually have one of these in my wall of stuff, and it’s actually a pretty cool little toy. Built by Ohio Art in 1986, a few years before the Game Boy hit store shelves, the gadget recreates the original Etch A Sketch’s basic two-knob interface, but adds additional features that the original did not have, most notably an “erase” function and an “animate” function. While not exactly loaded with memory, you could save multiple images on the gadget.

Given the popularity of the original object—which had a clear inspiration on the modern tablet computer, even if it didn’t have any electronics buried inside—the interest in the toy was strong, with lots of newspaper coverage around its 1986 release. Ohio Art’s marketing game was solid—it was sending the Animator home with sixth graders, and promoting the new manufacturing process it developed for the company’s first electronic toy.

Etch A Sketch Animator

It feels like it should fold, doesn’t it? Spoiler: It does not. (Wikimedia Commons)

As intriguing as the Animator was, its follow-up was perhaps even more so. The Etch A Sketch Animator 2000, released two years later and somewhat closer to a portable game console, had an angled, open-laptop-style format and a touchpad, which answers the question, “What would a laptop look like if it only had a touchpad?”

That, my friends, is a wildly ahead-of-its-time design for 1988.

2. VTech PreComputer Line

The era: Late 1980s-1990s

What it brought to the table: An understanding that kids need an on-ramp to tech

As I’ve written in the past, VTech is a fascinatingly bizarre company that, after moving on from its starting point as an Apple II clone-maker, has held strong positions in two extremely niche areas of technology—cordless landline telephones and kid-focused electronics. I’d commit a crime if I did not include them in this list, which is why I’m including them.

The PreComputer line isn’t the company’s best-known contribution to educational computing—that would probably be their oddball NES competitor, the Socrates—but it is probably the most influential one on the history of technology, in part because of how versatile the general concept was. The company developed at least as many incompatible models of the PreComputer as Radio Shack did of the TRS-80.

But the designs were pretty nice, showing a willingness to experiment with the form of the computers. Some were handheld, some were laptop-style, and some, such as the VTech PreComputer Unlimited, were even designed to plug into a TV.

Like many of the devices here, they’re extremely hackable, with some folks using PreComputer bases as starting points for cyberdecks, which, honestly, I’d love to see more of.

3. Tiger Talkback Dear Diary

The era: Mid 1990s

What it brought to the table: A kid-focused approach to personal organizers

If you’re wondering: Yes, you’ll see a lot of Tiger Electronics on this list, because they kind of owned this part of the toy aisle, especially after getting acquired by Hasbro in the late 1990s.

This particular device leverages a piece of existing IP managed by Tiger, the Talkboy tape recorder—no shit, a gadget imagined by a famous screenwriter as a plot device, turned into a real toy—to create a piece of computing that does a good job combining fun with function. This diary was a way to write your deepest thoughts, sure, but it also integrated the Talkboy’s killer feature—an easy way to record and play back audio—making it both fun and useful.

One theme that you’ll see with devices like these is that they often tend to be examples of legitimate electronics developed in another era or another form that have been resurfaced as kid’s toys. If this device existed in 1986, it would be seen as a serious business tool, encased in fancy leather packaging, and sold for hundreds of dollars.

4. Barbie Photo Designer

The era: 1998

What it brought to the table: A cheap digital camera at a time digital cameras weren’t usually cheap

Remember when Mattel made Hot Wheels and Barbie computers? Turns out, this was the test market for that general idea. Back in the late 1990s, Mattel invested heavily in building a technology business, with a new division, Mattel Media, coming to life in 1996.

Its first product, the Barbie Photo Designer, was a $70 camera whose superpowers came via a CD-ROM for your computer, packed with creativity tools for modifying and animating your digital pictures.

At the time this device came out, digital cameras cost many hundreds of dollars. So a $70 camera sold to the masses was a big deal, no matter the color—and fittingly, the device sold more than 300,000 units in its first holiday season. (All that said, it lacked a very important feature of most digital cameras: an LCD screen.)

The next year, the company expanded the market by developing the Nick Click, which took the same idea to a slightly more gender-neutral IP.

5. Cybiko

The era: Y2K

What it brought to the table: Networked computing around the school yard

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, graphing calculators saturated schools, bringing math classes into the computing age. (Fun fact: I bought a random cable from a Geocities site, held together with liquid cement, so I could add games to my TI-82.)

Fittingly, a tech company noticed this trend and appeared to develop a device that used a graphing calculator-style form factor for more traditionally fun tasks, like talking to your friends. And that company made the Cybiko, a brightly colored PDA for teens that promoted itself as a “Wireless Intertainment System.”

LGR did a great clip on this fascinating device about two years ago, so I’ll let him talk about how it came to life. Nonetheless, it definitely feels like whoever designed it realized that cell phones were going to be everywhere in schools within about five years of its release. Which they were.

But you know what wasn’t? The Cybiko. For its moment, it was a pretty cool idea, though.

6. Fisher Price Pixter

The era: Early-mid 2000s

What it brought to the table: PDA-style drawing tools

What if you took the basic idea of the Etch A Sketch Animator and made it work more like a Palm Pilot or Apple Newton? Oh, and you gave it a cartridge slot, like a Game Boy? This led to a fascinating product by Fisher Price, a firm not particularly known for selling electronic consoles.

(This device commonly shows up in Reddit threads of people trying to identify a gadget they once used, but they don’t remember the name of. To help you out: It’s a Pixter.)

The Pixter, a squarish gadget with bold, colorful plastics, was clever for its era—a creativity device that predicted the interest in the iPad just a few years later. The device used an attached stylus and accepted cartridges. And compared to a Game Boy, the screen was huge.

Eventually, it gained a color screen, and the ability to play videos. Fisher Price hasn’t made many straight electronics of this nature in the years since, which is too bad, because this feels like the company’s lane.

In fact, one might argue that the Pixter’s role in the market might have inspired other stylus-based devices focused on the consumer market, such as the Nintendo DS.

7. Wild Planet Spy Gear Eye Link Communicator

The era: Early-mid 2000s

What it brought to the table: Texting straight into your retinas

Texting was about to become huge with kids of all ages, and fittingly, the toy industry adjusted to this in every way they knew how. But this particular take stands out. A part of Wild Planet’s Spy Gear series of toys, this device included a small texting gadget, along with a piece of eyewear that displayed text messages from your friend (presumably also using the device).

Spy Gear’s line is obviously very gimmicky, this included, but this is probably the best execution of such an idea.

At a time when we’re starting to see VR come into its own in a real way, a device like this might be seen in a new light—as something of a forerunner. It certainly feels like it anticipated Google Glass, if nothing else.

Spy Gear appears inactive, alas. But it was still making products until at least the mid-2010s—check out this clip of a video walkie-talkie.

8. VideoNow

The era: 2003

What it brought to the table: Access to kid-length shows on the car ride home

Sometimes, when you’re on the go, you need to keep a kid at bay and manage their potential crankiness. In the modern day, tablets have proven a useful solution for this, but in the 2000s, VideoNow, a Tiger Electronics original, essentially found and exploited the gap between full-fledged DVD players and portable video. At the time of the VideoNow’s release, watching video on the go wasn’t common—portable DVD players started to emerge, but they were way too bulky for the use case.

The VideoNow did use discs—albeit slightly smaller models than the standard CDs and DVDs of the era. But the real optimization was the size. The devices were designed to be hand-held, like a smartphone in the modern day. Tiger’s track record was not in high quality but high novelty, and in this particular case, they very much found it.

It would only be a couple years until devices like the Video iPod, and later smartphones and tablets, would make this use case completely obsolete. But for its time, it was a fascinating idea.

(By the way, I feel like we’ll get in trouble if we don’t mention HitClips, so let me mention it: HitClips.)

9. ChatNow

The era: Late 2000s

What it brought to the table: A cell phone-like experience, via a walkie-talkie

This device, also made by Tiger Electronics, definitely feels like an idea whose time had come in the late 2000s.

I imagine the selling point for these things must’ve looked great for parents, as highlighted in the commercial above. Here’s a device that would allow you to contact your friend via a cell phone-like device, except instead of a phone with a bill, you could simply use the free-to-access open-protocol walkie-talkie networks, which weren’t designed to reach distances more than a mile away. (Fun fact that probably needs to be dug into some more: In the 1990s, Radio Shack developed an improved walkie-talkie standard, called Family Radio Service, that has basically outlived them.)

Tiger Electronics really specialized in finding these gaps in the markets at a time when they existed, and this is perhaps one of the best examples of it. It was perhaps inevitable that the iPod Touch would take ChatNow’s basic idea and run with it.

10. LeapFrog Didj

The era: Late 2000s

What it brought to the table: A Linux-based software stack

LeapFrog is an interesting company to consider in the modern day. Founded by a lawyer who was inspired to start a business after facing challenges teaching his son phonics (not a unique story, it turns out), LeapFrog eventually evolved into something of an educational gaming console company, selling learning tools targeted at audiences that might have previously picked up a Game Boy.

After a series of mergers, LeapFrog eventually gained a heavy hitter as its CEO: Former Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske, who also had much success at Mattel in the 1980s. Kalinske followed up his successful work building the Genesis brand by helping turn LeapFrog into a game company. (We don’t talk about the 32X. OK, maybe we do.) Strangely enough, it worked—and LeapFrog became the electronic toy company of the aughts.

The Didj wasn’t the company’s first gadget—it previously developed the LeapPad in 1999, then the Macromedia Flash-dependent Leapster in 2003—but it was fascinating because of its technology stack. Released in 2008, just before Android became a mainstream entity, the LeapFrog Didj had a custom Linux build at its center, something that LeapFrog continued with for some of its follow-ups. (It also had Sonic—something that Kalinske perhaps helped with.)

The use of Linux has made it and later Leapfrog generations a popular option for hacking in the modern day. For example, Retroleap, a custom version of Retroarch targeted for Leap devices, available on GitHub. It’s as if they made the Steam Deck 15 years early by accident.

It’s only fitting that VTech now owns LeapFrog.

Admittedly, most devices on this list highlight the potential positive effects of technology on how we approach life, while others are clearly designed to work against the tension technology was creating.

Your kid may want a laptop, but a laptop is expensive, so get them a VTech device instead. They want a cell phone, but cell phones come with risks and data plans. So, it’s better to give them a walkie-talkie that carries itself like a cell phone, rather than expose them to the real thing, right?

There’s also something to be said about the fact that many of these devices have practical limits. You’re not talking to the open internet with most of these gadgets, and most are designed to only work with a handful of people around you. That limits the addiction factor of these gadgets for the most part.

But these designs are ultimately designed to be outgrown. If you really get into a Barbie digital camera, eventually you’re going to want a real one. And if a kid gets into a PDA-style device or creativity tool, they’re going to pick up a computer and figure out that they can do way more.

Electronic toys still abound, but one gets the feeling that convergence cost us some of the more fascinating ideas on this list. I mean, there’s only so much an iPad can do, right?


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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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