Living: Those Beeping, Thinking Toys

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Mkroviskm. "I have a family and a responsible job. I'm supposed to be intelligent. I'm trying to get an important new project started for my company. So this" —the Manhattan communications executive looked in exasperation at the small plastic box he held in one hand—"is crazy. It just doesn't make any sense that I've spent all morning twiddling this knob." Then his expression changed to a high-voltage gloat: "But look at that score!" The readout on the small, gray, liquid crystal screen said 542, which is middling-titanic for Blockbuster, the best of several mind-destroying games that can be played on the midget console. Blockbuster is a test of reflexes and anticipation; twiddling the machine's knob moves an electronic paddle back and forth across the bottom of the 1½-in.-square display screen, and the object is to bounce an electronic bullet so that it destroys a wall, block by block. Milton Bradley Co.'s Microvision with Blockbuster, easily the best new electronic game this season, costs about $50. Substituting faceplates, ranging from $16.50 to $18, changes the programming to such games as Pinball, also an agility test, or Connect Four, a good spatial relations puzzle.

Speak & Spell. This cheerful-looking little red box, made by Texas Instruments, signals for attention with a four-note tune when a child (or wondering adult) presses the On button. Then, when the Go button is pressed, the machine says, in a deep, pleasant, male voice, "Spell wash." The child presses W, and the machine pronounces the name of the letter: "Double-you." When the speller finishes punching the letter buttons, he presses Enter, and the machine says, "That is correct. Now spell extra." Or, if the speller has made a mistake, the machine says, "Wrong. Try again." The sentences are lifelike, and the pitch of the voice rises and falls in a normal way. Two wrong attempts bring the correct spelling, spoken aloud, and a new word to try. After ten words, another little tune plays, and the machine gives the speller's score, with special congratulations if all ten have been spelled correctly.

There are varying word lists—some repetitions, some new words—at each of four levels of difficulty. In addition, the machine plays word games, and can put messages into code. (It also spells any word aloud, when the proper buttons are pushed, and children discover quickly that when improper buttons are pushed, bad words are spelled. The shock value is considerable when the pleasant mechanical voice pronounces "Eff, You, See ...") Speak & Spell, which sells for $64.95, was dreamed up by a Texas Instruments products engineer named Paul Breedlove, who had worked in voice synthesis and thought that the concept might be used in a small teaching machine. The speller appeared on the market a year ago, and the only limit to sales now is, ironically, TI's inability to produce chips fast enough.

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