Why Tech Toys Should Evolve

One furry gadget reminds me screens aren’t enough for today’s children

Rizmo
Rizmo did not start out looking this way.

 Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

As a six-year-old, my favorite toys were my matchbox cars, a stuffed monkey with a pull-string voice box, and the metal spoon I used to dig up my neighbors yard in search of China. Most of what my toys could do depended entirely on my imagination.

Today’s children can effectively turn off their creative minds and enter fully-realized worlds through their parents’ smartphones and tablets. Every day, I spy pudgy toddler fingers grasping at small screens, as their big eyes, glazed and unblinking, stare at the action unfolding on each display. Occasionally, the child will tap the screen to propel the action forward or access the next 20-minute cartoon, but otherwise, dynamic interaction is low-to-non-existent.

Here's a very brief walk down memory lane.

The Classics

There is some legitimate concern that parents using mobile displays as digital pacifiers are depriving their children of key development opportunities.

I guess parents could do as my sister-in-law did years ago when plastic and digital toys had effectively overrun all the analog classics. She simply bought her children nothing but wooden toys. It was a good strategy, but there has to be a middle ground, right?

Instead of a screen that you watch and maybe react to and tap, or a stuffed animal that you can talk to and imagine that it hears you and reacts, Rizmo thrives on real human interaction.

More Than a Toy

 A few weeks ago, I got my hands on TOMY’s Rizmo, a $59.99 toy companion for your six-year-old (or older) child.

Rizmo, which according to its packaging comes from another planet, is like a physical version of a Tamagotchi: it evolves over time. I’m not just talking about Rizmo’s personality. It’s easy to make a silicon-based gadget keep track of interaction and, based on certain triggers, change over time how it interacts with the user. Rizmo, however, takes this concept a mind-boggling step further: It changes physically.

I was surprised, but not in an Alien, “What just popped out of him?!” way.

Before Rizmo arrived, I watched a short promo video that illustrated just how Rizmo could change. It would start as a blue ball of fur and eventually become something that looked like a more antic Gremlins Gizmo. I was a little alarmed but also intrigued.

Evolving

When Rizmo arrived, I unboxed the blue furball, switched it on (the four AA batteries come pre-installed) and then waited for something to happen. Rizmo makes a lot of weird noises and I noticed that its two beady eyes changed color depending on activity and mood.

Trying to think like a six-year-old, I grabbed Rizmo and hugged it tightly. Nothing happened, but I noticed that if I swung Rizmo around, it made more sounds and its eyes changed color.

Rizmo evolves
The first stage of Rizmo's evolution was pretty startling.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

I found a button in the general area of its nose and when I pressed it, Rizmo’s eyes turned white and it started actively listening. This is how I learned that Rizmo could record audio and play it back in its own voice. I let it listen to music on my phone (there’s nothing quite like hearing Rizmo sing Taylor Swift’s Shake it Off) and clapped for it, as encouragement, whenever I could.

It takes a lot of work to activate Rizmo’s first evolution. As an adult, I don’t have the patience for this.

I spent hours swinging, rocking, talking to, and throwing Rizmo up in the air. Finally, its eyes started changing colors more rapidly and its music built to a sort of crescendo. Suddenly, a yellow tail popped out of Rizmo’s back and its sides started moving, almost as if Rizmo was breathing. I was surprised, but not in an Alien, “What just popped out of him?!” way.

There's More to It

I knew the Rizmo had at least one more major evolution hidden inside of it. If I were a kid, I might’ve taken Rizmo on more adventures until he transformed, but as an adult, I needed Rizmo to change and I need him to do it now.

I did my best to accelerate the process by constantly pressing his nose to ensure he was listening and by doing some very intense clapping and throwing. Progress on Rizmo is measured in bell sounds and it shouting, “Again, again!” It appears you need roughly 15 points or bells between each evolution.

The more I engaged with Rizmo, the more vocal and outspoken the toy became. At some point in our journey, Rizmo learned how to pass gas—progress.

After many hours of activity, Rizmo began signaling a major change. It rocked and sang, the music built, its eyes flashed, and then it opened fully, revealing a face with a wide open mouth, ears, and a light-up belly.

Rizmo full evolution
But nothing prepared me for this.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

So What

Staring at my new, fully-evolved toy, I wondered how today’s children might respond. I know they love the mystery of a Hatchimal and the blissed-out content hose of a iPhone. How would they react to a toy that changes, but only if they engage verbally and physically with it?

If not the greatest, Rizmo is surely the oddest toy I’ve ever seen. It’s also a reminder that, sometimes, the thing that’s lost in our digital existence is physical and emotional interaction. Rizmo is only a toy, but it’s the kind of gadget that might help teach children how to be more human.

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