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This Toy Brand is Trying to Balance Real-Life and VR Learning

Millennial parents are wary of screen time overload and desperate for educational toys, and this VR brand is trying to cater to their wishes…

When it comes to toys, Millennial parents have specific ideas about what they want for their kids. YPulse’s Playtime report found that 94% of Millennial parents say kids should use playtime to learn new skills, and 81% would rather their kids play with toys that are educational over toys that are purely fun. This desire has potentially become even stronger as remote learning has become a reality, and parents find themselves in the role of part-time teacher. This summer, parents were buying up puzzles, books, and toys to entertain quarantined kids offscreen, and Kidscreen reports that in August sales of tech gadgets and educational activity books began booming as families prepped for at-home schooling. 

But Millennial parents are also looking for balance in play—in other words, toys that aren’t devoted to screens. In fact, YPulse’s research shows 60% of parents would rather have their child play with toys that are not connected to the internet. But they are also raising kids in a tech-reliant world, and grew up on video games and computers themselves. Now, the toy industry is increasingly finding ways to merge both. Earlier this year, YPulse noted that many STEM and educational toys are focusing on balancing hands-on learning with screen time to appeal to today’s families.

Enter Abacus Brands, who offers VR toys and science kits that aim to “utilize today’s technology to help advance and add value to published content, whether that’s books or an educational curriculum.” To layer the learning process, they mix together books, tech, and tangible play to give children a well-rounded play experience full of learning and imaginative play. For example, their Bill Nye Virtual Reality Science Kit for Kids includes an 80 page interactive project book and 30 hands-on experiments, but also has kids explore caves and volcanoes in VR all with help from the animated Professor Maxwell. 

According to Abacus Brands’ Founder and CEO Steve Rad, their “focus and motivation is to tackle both the logic side of the brain and the creative arts or artistic side of the brain at the same time.” We spoke to Rad about whether VR is being adopted into the mainstream, what parents want out of toys today, how COVID-19 has impacted the brand, the next big trends in play, and more:

YPulse: How do Abacus Brands products work?

Steve Rad: They work to engage both sides of the brain. Our purpose is to go from a tangible play experience by doing something physical, and then taking consumers into a 360-immersive VR environment. It’s a roller coaster ride of tangible and physical meets immersive and digital—and being able to cross into those two play patterns back and forth by giving them something to associate with. Kids are digesting information differently. They’re learning things in layers. In our opinion, the foundation of an editorial book is where they start the learning process followed by doing something tangible and physical with hands to touch, feel, do, and build. With our products, kids are able to use the whole aspect of the digital and tech aspect and go into an immersive world and seeing a volcano erupt from a helicopter, or walk on the Great Wall of China or be in the Colosseum in Rome, or immerse themselves in an ice crystal cave after learning about making crystals. We’re tying in those real-life values in an immersive kind of way.

How has COVID-19 affected your brand?

SR: It’s affected everybody differently. For us, it’s been both positive and negative. There’s a lot of, let’s say, possible potential orders that we were expecting that did not happen with companies that went under or tightened up. We slowed down in retail and in certain markets. The other side of it would be in ecommerce. We have customers on Amazon and Google searching for science and educational toys especially in a time where kids have been on lockdown or are stuck at home or unable to attend school. I think now, more than ever, we’re seeing a lot of education and STEM content. 

Have you seen an uptick in popularity for your products with the onset of remote learning? 

SR: I wouldn’t say an uptick in popularity because we launched during the pandemic. I don’t have anything to base it against. I don’t have last year’s numbers, because we didn’t exist. It’s probably the worst time to gauge what’s happening in a company, but it’s been a successful launch. We’ve received awards and great feedback. The reviews are high, which is great. But we are taking advantage of the opportunity to ensure that we can get as much content into the hands of kids and educating families. 

Have the last 6 months changed any plans in terms of products you’re planning or creating? 

SR: Our trajectory is still to create and cover the same subjects. We’re just going to cover the bases of every single subject matter from dinosaurs to the human body to everything you can imagine. It’s going to be a school system at some point where every subject in school is covered. It’s just covering the gambit of what kids would be interested in. What’s really cool is that our items are for parents, too. If they give their kid our Human Body kit and they don’t like it, they’re probably not going to be going to become a doctor. Or if they give them our Cooking kit and they don’t like it, they’re probably not going to be a chef. And if it’s an interest for them, then it’s a good way for parents to really know. 

YPulse: Is VR being adopted more into the mainstream? Do you have information on how many kids have VR or have access to it? 

SR: VR is being adopted in the mainstream in the sense that Exxon is using it for all of their training at oil rigs, it’s being widely used in the pharmaceutical space, in the oil space, and the training space. On the gaming side, it’s being heavily adopted. Of course, with HTC, Samsung, and Facebook Oculus—it’s definitely the next biggest platform. But I think the problem with VR is that parents don’t want the kids to put on goggles and just be lost in something for that long, right? So, it is being adopted on the 13-years-old and plus-level, and on the adult-level and professional landscape. But the trick is, and what we have adopted, is to not make it the primary aspect of the item. We wanted to make [VR] a 20-to-30 seconds experience to tie in with real life lessons to add value to those lessons. When someone is buying a Facebook Oculus or going into a VR game, they’re going in deep. They’re putting on those goggles and are going to be in that thing for whatever the duration of the game is. It could be hours. With us, you can make a volcano erupt, and with the goggles, watch a 30-second clip of a volcano eruption from a helicopter in real life. Then you can come back to the tangible side to read and learn something. The way we’re using it versus the way the mainstream markets are using it is a really big parallel. But yes, the world is heavily adopting VR, and it is the biggest thing that’s about to pop.

YPulse: What other trends are impacting the toy industry and the products you design?

SR: The biggest trend that we’re starting to see is arts and humanity. I think kindness is being kicked back into, and just the emotional side of having humanized arts is going to be big as well, along with wellness. All that stuff is going to really start playing a factor as an underlying narrative in all of products. I think being able to do something, whether it’s science or magic or cooking and being able to tie those elements in, is going to be a factor in the next few years. 

YPulse: Our Playtime trend research found that 97% of 19-to-37-year-old parents say playtime is very important for children, while 94% believe playtime should be used to learn new skills. How is play for the next generation being redefined?

SR: It’s very subjective. What will you define as play? And what values you want to come out of play. For us, we’re inspiring kids to get a little bit of all of it. That’s the whole philosophy for us, whether it’s through the book content, whether it’s through the tangible touch and feel content, or whether it’s through the digital immersive, 360-content. We’re going to give our customers all of it. We’re giving them three layers. Hopefully, between one of those layers, they may have picked up something in layer one during a project, or hopefully picked up something in layer three on a different project. But our philosophy is to give it to consumers in various formats and let them be the judge on how it’s absorbed and what they took from it.

YPulse: Are you seeing that this generation of Millennial parents have shopped differently for their kids than previous generations?

SR: I think so. There’s a huge push back against screen time, which is great. We’re also fans of lowering screen time. I think screen time has got a bad rap in the way it’s used. I think some parents give their kids a phone as a distraction and create bombardment. For the kids, I think using it as a babysitting tool is alarming, but for us, it’s finding that way to take the guilt away by creating “guilt-free screen time”—which we can put a trademark behind for us. So, they’re getting educational content. They’re learning something from it. I think it makes parents feel better to know that they can put their kids into the digital world. The landscape has definitely changed from the shopping habits in what they’re looking for is apparent to what they’re hoping as well as the expectations of the parents and what they’re hoping the product is going to yield for the investment they’re making. 

As far as parents’ buying patterns or habits go, because of the current economic conditions, I think parents are more picky, or demand quality in what they’re looking to achieve effectively. So, when there’s a gap in school and there’s a gap in outdoor play, I think parents are coming into shopping for toys or shopping for their kids in today’s market with a specific need to fill. A lot of parents are like: “OK, cool. Now I need some science. Now I need to learn about the galaxy. Now I want to learn about food” or they want their kids to learn a little magic. Instead of going for the old, traditional “educational fun toy,” it’s a little bit more content-driven. Parents are doing a good job of looking for those needs, because we’re seeing the trends of the search patterns from Amazon to Google. 

YPulse: How are your products balancing screen time and hands on time? Do you find this is a concern for Millennial parents? 

SR: Our entire philosophy is the balance. The balance is the most crucial part. Every single project, every single page, every single thing that we design is based around that balance in our characters and books. It kind of navigates you through that process of: Here’s the lesson. Now let’s put the phone down. Let’s build it. Let’s create it. Let’s touch and feel, and actually do something tangible with our hands. Now, let us go blast off and “walk” on the surface of Mars and see it from a different way using the technical side to add some value. Balance is the key underlying factor of the whole thing. 

And I think [the balance is] a big deal now, more than ever. In the last few months, we’ve evolved even more to ensure that kids have the proper balance of getting off the phone. Brevity is the key to blowing a kid’s mind, right? Give them something awesome for 60 seconds, take it off, and then go do something. The anticipation of keeping them wanting more and not just making it all about one thing.

Steve Rad, a USC film school graduate, discovered a deep passion for merging entertainment and education at an early age. Growing up in a family of educators, he believes learning should be fun and transformative to keep up with the fast-paced way children are absorbing new information every day. Rad is making his own mark in the toy industry by developing a new line of augmented and virtual reality toys to harness the power of a new and affective medium that thrills and excites kids as they learn new fundamental educational lessons. Rad successfully gamified the learning process, taking a cerebral approach to making it less school and more fun!