IPod’s Groovy Factor
WHAT do flying plastic pigs, dancing daisies and robotic Barbie dolls have in common? An iPod.
With more than 90 million players sold worldwide since its introduction in 2001, the iPod has spawned a lucrative accessories industry. At least 3,000 types of iPod extras have received Apple’s blessing — mostly no-nonsense options like cases, earbuds and amplified speaker systems, including the $300 SoundDock line made by Bose.
But another trend is developing, one more playful and not always with Apple’s approval or knowledge.
Call it iSilly, a growing number of products in which fun is emphasized over function, and cute or irreverent often trumps wow. All of these items, some costing as little as $10, have been created to plug into an iPod — or, in many cases, any audio source that has a standard 3.5-millimeter headphone jack.
Last fall, KNG America released an animated robotic D.J. complete with spinning turntables and stereo speakers that flash with blue L.E.D. lights. Called FUNKit, the device, which costs about $100, is designed specifically for the iPod. When a player is attached, it becomes the head and upper body of the D.J. that rocks to the music, spouting phrases like “drop the beat,” as its right arm scratches a faux record.
“People looked and saw the popularity of the iPod and tried to figure out how to capitalize on it, like those scavenger fish that swim under sharks,” said Shelly Hirsch, a toy industry marketing specialist and chief executive of the Beacon Media Group.
Greg Joswiak, vice president of iPod product marketing for Apple, said the growing number of products designed to plug into an iPod helps prove that the iPod has become “a cultural phenomenon.”
“If you look at it from the consumers’ standpoint, they have a consumer electronic product that becomes more valuable over time,” he said. “We’re adding these accessories, adding capabilities.”
Any speaker accessory that attaches to the iPod by way of the proprietary 30-pin connector in the player’s base must be licensed by Apple, he noted. Those that do, including the FUNKit, can usually also permit full control of the iPod through the speaker systems and charge iPods’ batteries.
Those that do not, and are not counted as official iPod accessories, are “less interesting,” Mr. Joswiak said. That judgment has not dissuaded toymakers like Lee Schneider, president of the Commonwealth Toy & Novelty Company, a major maker of plush animals and dolls.
“We look at not only the toy business, but what’s happening in the world, and the trends in the marketplace, from a fashion standpoint, from a technological standpoint,” said Mr. Schneider, surrounded by shelves of battery-powered flora and fauna in his company’s Manhattan showroom. “We then take and see how we can interpret these trends into fun trends that children and young adults would love to have.”
Last year, he said, “iPods were becoming the rave of the world.” Mr. Schneider said that he and his executives had asked themselves a single question: “What can we do to make something that could be utilized with iPod?”
First, he said, the company came up with a name that would tie its prospective line of products to iPod. The result was iPals, which Commonwealth quickly registered and trademarked. Next, the company moved to define the personality of an iPal.
The first iPal, released last year, was a shaggy, plush creature resembling a teardrop-shaped extraterrestrial with stereo speakers for eyes positioned on long, flexible stalks. The shaggy iPal plugs into any audio player with a standard headphone jack, avoiding the need for an Apple license.
Mr. Schneider said the original iPal, which cost about $25, was intended for “tween girls who want to have something cool and fun in their room.”
Then came the Movin’ and Groovin’ line of potted plants, also $25, “probably the best introduction in the history of my company,” Mr. Schneider said. The plants, some wearing sunglasses and others a pink purse over a leafy limb, gyrate to music played through a speaker hidden in the plant’s pot.
There is also a line of dancing snakes (soon to be joined by dancing dragons), both $25, as well as plush speaker systems for children called Smonsters and Plumplers, about $15, and Mini iPals that will cost $10. In the works is a dancing plant as tall as a third grader (“a room décor piece”) for $80.
“I look at this almost like the Lava Lite of the 2000s,” Mr. Schneider said of his creations.
Sharper Image, the retail chain, is featuring a line of fanciful iPod speaker systems. One is a scale model of a lemon-yellow, convertible Volkswagen Beetle. Its speakers are hidden in its wheels, and iPods are intended to “ride” in its back seat. At $100, the Beetle is also a digital alarm clock and FM-AM radio with a wireless remote control and working headlights.
Sharper Image is also offering a $40 teddy bear that flashes tiny lights embedded in its paws and feet when digital music is played through its speaker. A pocket on its belly is strategically positioned to nestle an iPod.
Sharper Image also sells an iPod docking station that creates a rainbow of colored L.E.D. lights that pulsate to the rhythm of music played through it. The stereo systems come in two versions, one for $100 and a similar one with a subwoofer for $150.
Mr. Hirsch, the toy industry marketing expert, said iPods have become such a part of everyday life that — as with a wristwatch — its underlying technology was taken for granted. “It’s almost like magic,” he said.
Among the first to tap into that magic, many in the industry say, was Hasbro’s I-DOG Interactive Music Companion, introduced in fall 2005. At $30, it is a palm-size robotic pooch with an embedded speaker that moves to music played through it when attached to a digital music player. Hasbro also makes a menagerie of I-animals, including pups, cats and fish. This month it added a $20 penguin, called I-CY, that flaps its flippers as its belly glows to music.
Not to be outdone, Mattel, continually updating Barbie, is introducing interactive Chat Divas Barbie dolls for $30. The doll can talk on its cellphone in one hand and sing karaoke with a microphone in the other. The battery-powered karaoke machine doubles as a speaker for a music player, and Barbie moves her head and lips to the music.
MGA Entertainment has taken a different direction. The company has created the i-Bratz i-Petz Piggy, a touch-sensitive plastic piglet ($25) that dances to music played through it. It lights up, turns its head and even flaps its if-pigs-could-fly wings.
And while it may not qualify as a toy, Atech Flash Technology has come up with an accessory that may still provide a smile. It is the Stereo Dock for iPod with Bath Tissue Holder, a toilet-paper dispenser with an iPod dock and speakers. Selling for $100 ($130 with built-in rechargeable battery), it can also be detached from the wall and used as a portable speaker system.
George Yang, the marketing director of Atech, which has offices in Taiwan and Fremont, Calif., said the Apple-licensed product had been well-received at trade shows. “All get a good laugh out of it,” he said. As for Apple, he added, “it’s good P.R. for them.”