Living: Those Beeping, Thinking Toys

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Clever new playmates can be found in a child's garden of microchips

Well before noon on Christmas Day, horror-stricken adults will issue forth from every child-equipped house in the nation. They will be dismayed because they have seen the future. The future works, as it turns out, but only if they make a run for more batteries. Not, as in the good old days, a couple of 10¢ Evereadys, but bushels of expensive nine-volts, pecks of Penlites, and Cs and Ds in numbers beyond counting.

This desperate foraging for batteries will symbolize the fact that the era of small, clever (and usually battery-powered) computer— toys has arrived in full beep. But beeps are not the extent of the commotion; in a couple of astonishing cases, the new gadgets will play games with their owners while announcing the moves and commenting on the play in understandable spoken English, or in one of several other languages that the purchaser may choose. Some of the toys are musical, and some are rolling, programmable robot vehicles.

Computers are good games players, and the best games this year are fiendishly addictive challenges to physical dexterity and mental sharpness. Not all of the addicts are children, and this pleases toy manufacturers because it is beginning to be clear that adults can be very self-indulgent in buying expensive computer games for themselves. Indeed, adults usually outnumbered the kids last week in the fast-growing electronic games departments of stores across the nation.

What is even more interesting than prospective riches for the toy companies, however, is the feet that many of the computer gadgets are both toys and teaching machines. As teachers they can form bonds of a sort—friendships?—with their pupils. And though two or more human beings can sometimes play against each other in computer games, it is clear to anyone who has tried the machines that the most fascinating interaction is between one person and one computer. Computer gaming, and learning, are solitary activities that do not seem solitary. The computer toys are starting to teach their owners not only a new kind of thinking, but what may amount to a strange new way of socializing. Says J. Fred Bucy, president of Texas Instruments, the biggest producer of the silicon chips that are the brains of the little monsters, "I think schoolteachers in the next decade are going to see a new kind of animal walking through their doors."

A look at some of the toys the animals are turning on, and vice versa, this season:

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