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Smartphone-operated toys the way to go

Hong Kong toy industry has thrived by developing remote-control apps

 

Hong Kong toy manufacturers may have lost their former clout as the world's biggest player, but the industry's surviving operators have succeeded in using technology to maintain the appeal of their products, from dolls, model tanks to model guns.

E-Supply International Limited is a manufacturer and exporter of various kinds of radio-controlled toys. In 2012, the company attached a camera to one of its products, the quadcopter, which was originally a remote controlled multi-rotor miniature helicopter. Now a user can control the quadcopter and shoot real time videos of 640x480 pixels resolution in the air, with the moving images appearing in real time on the screen of his smartphone.

E-Supply opened a line named i-Toys especially for the application-controllable toys.

"A smartphone is a must-have right now. Toy makers have to stick with the trend and advance with time. So we combine toys and smartphones together," said the company's business development manager Ms Kenes Cheung.

She said the trend of embracing toys that connect with smartphones was "unstoppable" and the company was therefore "actively producing more user-friendly apps".

"We have thought of building an app that is universally applicable to all of our i-Toys products," Ms Cheung added. "Let's see what will happen".

Although the relevant technology is already quite mature, toy manufacturers still face many difficulties.

Few years ago, AR Attack, a local toy company that made miniature water guns in the 60s, created an alien shooting app calls ARliens. This app incorporates augmented reality technology by overlaying computer-generated content on to a real-life image captured on a smartphone to turn the product AR Gun into a virtual shooting tool.

Players can battle with virtual enemies in the tailor-made app when a smartphone is attached to the toy gun and connected via Bluetooth.

The app offers ten levels of difficulty where players can unlock weapons with animations narrating the game as it proceeds. CEO and co-founder of AR Attack, Mr Kevin Mak, described the app ARliens as "the heart of the toy gun".

The major challenge for producing the toy gun set is the development of hardware and software.

"For the hardware, the electronics components inside the gun must not consume the battery quickly," Mr Mak said. "For the software, the toy gun can be compatible with both Android and iOS apps."

Another toy manufacturer, Toyeast Limited, focuses on a niche market. Their product, the VsTank, is a remote- controlled tank powered by a mobile app instead of a physical remote control.

Marketing manager of Toyeast Limited,MsMarikoKo,saiditwas"by chance" that the company had made the tanks application-oriented.

Two years ago, at the Hong Kong Toys & Games Fair, an Apple Inc. representative approached it and discussed the possibility of replacing the remote control with an iOS app using Bluetooth connection, she said.

Toyeast had to spend a lot of time during the pre-production process to obtain licenses for developing the app. There were countless discussions between the two parties. Even with the invitation, Toyeast used half a year to obtain the license from Apple and spent another nine months to build the app.

When VsTank became fully smartphone-operated, the controller was not offered anymore. Ms Ko said the company received complaints from customers and retailers because they felt "deprived".

"Some of them were not pleased when they knew the remote control was not included in the package. They felt there should be a price-cut. The fact is that the cost of building the app is almost the same as building the remote control," said Ms Ko.

"Besides, the limited space on the motherboard can only accommodate the electronic parts of either one control system".

Competition from the toy companies all over the world is also a big challenge to the local manufacturers.

Ms Cheung from E-Supply does not see the smart-tech integrated tanks driving the inventory turnover. Instead, the uncertain economic environment, particularly in Europe, and the keen competition from the mainland should be taken into account.

London-based marketing intelligence firm Euromonitor International forecasts a slowdown in the annual growth of the European Union toy market, projecting an expansion of about 4 per cent this year as well as in 2016.

According to the Hong Kong Trade Development Council and China Toy & Juvenile Products Association, Hong Kong's toys export, taken together with re-exports, reached US$8.24 billion last year while that of China amounted US$24.74 billion.

On the other hand, AR Attack has faith in local production. Mr Mak said although toy manufacturers in the Mainland are quick learners with enormous funding, the factor differentiating Hong Kong toys are safety, high quality, credibility and innovation.

"The app adds value and diversity to the toy. That's why we constantly update the app," said Mr Mak.

"But tech-driven toys will not completely replace conventional toys. As long as a toy stays dynamic and interactive, it will last long. Think of Lego, it's the concept and the execution that matters".

By Harry Ng

Edited by Shirley Chan

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