Blocks, a Tiny Racecar, and a Flying Shark
Five of the most innovative toys of 2011.
This radio-controlled racing car is tiny (about 5 inches long), but it makes up for its puny size in two ways. First, it’s superfast. It can reach speeds of 20 mph, which is the scale equivalent of more than 500 mph. Second, it’s got a plastic roll bar, which eliminates the main problem with RC racers this small and fast—they tend to turn over at the slightest bounce, and they’re usually impossible to right without some manual intervention.
The roll bar—a transparent plastic band that fits around the car—really works. I raced the car indoors and out, and it stayed upright on all terrain. It’s also got two sets of tires—foam for indoors and nubby rubber ones for outdoors—that you can easily switch out as you play in different places. The controller offers four points of control—forward, reverse, right, and left—and I found it quite responsive and easy to get the hang of.
There’s one big downside, which is that you can only race the car for a few minutes before you’ve got to recharge it by plugging the car into the controller (which requires six AA batteries). Each charge takes 30 to 50 minutes
Recon 6.0 Programmable Rover. About $60. Recommended age: 8 and up.
Think of the Rover as a real-live version of Logo, the graphical language that’s a great way to introduce kids to programming. The rover, a 10-inch-tall robot who bears more than a passing resemblance to Wall-E, moves according to your commands. You enter in a list of orders on its front panel—Move 10 feet forward, turn right 90 degrees, etc.—and then watch the robot do your bidding.
In addition to chugging along, the bot can also record and play back sound files. The included mission book—which I found to be a really entertaining introduction to programming—has tips on how to get your Recon to tell knock-knock jokes, deliver a treat to your dog, or have the robot scurry about the house and spy on your parents and siblings.
This is one of the most bizarre toys I’ve ever played with. It’s also totally fun, and for the first few minutes of play, it will make you pee your pants with laughter. The Air Swimmer is basically a big, fish-shaped helium balloon that’s affixed with fins and a remote-controlled rudder. It comes unassembled, and assembly is a bit of a bear. First, you’ve got to get the balloon inflated at a party store, and then you’ve got to attach all the fins with small pieces of plastic tape. The whole process takes about an hour, and you’ll need a friend or supportive spouse to hold the giant balloon while you do so.
But once the fish is all set up it couldn’t be easier to play with. The controller has two buttons—one to point the fish up or down, the other to move the tail fin left and right. To move it forward, you move the tail rapidly from side to side, mimicking the propulsive force of a real fish. Voila—you’ve got a shark that can fly through the air.
What’s really goofy about this toy is how big it is: My shark is six feet long and three feet tall, so it looks totally hilarious coming down the hall. And I’d bet it’d be a great way to scare grandma on Christmas Eve.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.