In addition to new toys, Mattel also brought its new CTO, Sven Gerjets, to Toy Fair 2018. The company has actually never had a CTO before; Gerjets thinks he may be the only one in the toy industry. He’s now dividing his time between transforming Mattel’s IT operation and developing a connected-toy strategy. At Toy Fair, he sat down with PCMag for a conversation about tech toy trends and how toys can inspire STEM interest in children. Here are some lightly edited highlights.
Carol Mangis: What’s your role, as you see it, at Mattel?
Sven Gerjets: I wear two hats, essentially. We’ve had CIOs in the past who have been focused solely on the business systems, and the connected space has been more within the brands and been done very brand-focused. So we’re trying to figure out, how do we wrap a strategy around that that really moves the needle for us?
Different brands have taken different approaches, and so on some level, we’re learning a lot about the toy space and connectivity…. I think part of it is figuring out, how do we digitally enhance play? I think a lot of companies out there are putting tech in toys for tech’s sake.
We’ve got this amazing core DNA of physical play. How do we enhance skills and develop children, and how do we keep that DNA, but enhance the digital? I think it’s a much more interesting and much more engaging and appealing space. So, we’re focusing on that, and also focusing on aspects of STEM, and how do we inspire kids towards STEM careers? And how does this become more inspirational for the broad group of children who use our products across these very diverse brands?
Every toy company seems to be saying, ‘We have toys that will inspire STEM skills or STEM interests!’ So how are you taking an approach to being conscious about that, instead of just saying, ‘There’s technology in the toy?’
One of the things that I’m finding is that there’s a lot of technology toys out there that say they inspire STEM, but my opinion… they’re focused on kids who already want to be engineers. When I was a child, I was a tinkerer. I had to be a mechanic or an engineer or something, because it was just how I was wired.
No pun intended.
Yeah, exactly. And I read your article, actually, on STEM toys. You know, when you go through that, there’s some really interesting things, but they’re kind of geared to that child who is going to be an engineer. You know they’re going to be an engineer. And, I think the problem with it is, those kids are often the ones that are tearing your TV apart, they’re going to Fry’s to get a board… They don’t need a toy to do that.
One of the things that we’re trying to pivot to is, how do we actually make STEM accessible and interesting and inspiring to broader kids? So it’s not, how do you create the tinker toys of an electronics lab, but how do you inspire kids that are broader? So we’re doing things with Tynker…a platform for teaching kids how to program. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but we’re using our brands to kind of inspire kids.
We’re doing a big launch with the Barbie character… to inspire kids to learn how to program. And I think that’s a great example of inspiration versus engineering toys. And that was a little bit of what I’ve learned coming in, too, because I love to play with the engineering toys, but I think STEM… is much more about inspiring kids that maybe aren’t wired that way.
They need those skills, too.
Did you guys look at the Kamigami, Jurassic [World] Kamigami? We launched a Kamigami bug last year, we’ve got the Jurassic, and then we have another one that we’re not talking about quite yet that’s coming out. Those products are great examples [where you] don’t have to be a roboticist to build it, but you get to build your own robot, you get to program it. It’s super accessible.
So what’s motivating a kid to play with Kamigami if they’re not already oriented toward coding and engineering?
I think it’s super-compelling physical play, which is the DNA of the company. And I think that’s the difference. If you can make something super compelling for a child, in a play pattern that they recognize and know, and then enhance it in a way that’s inspiring to go: ‘What’s that next step? How do I take the next leap? This is really fun, I built my own robot, what’s next?’
I think it’s about making it much more accessible and much broader and appealing… Sometimes I find when I look at toys out there, when you’re trying to create a whole kind of new play pattern, it’s really geared towards kids or adults that like that play pattern… The Tynker project is about giving kids different aspects, like there’s a music aspect, there’s pet vet, there are these different skills. And so if somebody wants to be a veterinarian, they come in and they learn how to program. If somebody loves music, they come in and they use music to learn how to program. It’s much more open and accessible. It’s not like, let’s try to cram them into a box.
Now, does Mattel do any kind of research on its own in terms of discovering what kind of technology to integrate into toys to create that interest? Or are you looking to other research?
So we’re doing a little bit of both. But I think we start at what’s inspiring, and what kind of play is interesting. And from there, we figure out, how do we make the product accessible from the technology standpoint? Because honestly, in my mind, the technology is the easy part. The problem is, you can make it way too expensive, inaccessible… So we do work with partners; we do a lot with the startup community, we work with other tech toy companies to reuse capabilities that they’ve got, but the focus that we’re trying to lay down is how do we keep it in an accessible price range? A $250 play computer with a bunch of gadgets, it’s just not accessible, and I think the problem is, until the child plays with it and starts using it, you don’t know if they’re going to get bored with it. So, you know, you’re going to put down $200 on something or $50 on a buildable robot, and see if they are even interested in robotics.
I imagine that holds parents back a lot.
I think so.
We’ve seen a lot of really amazing, cute robots that I couldn’t afford.
I think that’s absolutely right… And part of the interesting thing in the space is that, nerds like me love to put tech in toys. There’s such a kind of a cool set of things out there, especially from the inventor community because I’m like, ‘I’m going to grab an Arduino board, and I’m going to put some code on it, and I’m going to hook it to some things, and hey, I built my own autonomous RC car.’ So there’s a lot of innovation happening, which is awesome, and I think we have to look at how do we then take that innovation and make it accessible and inspiring.
So I guess you probably do focus groups with kids?
Yeah, we do a lot of that. Especially, in the early concept phases, and actually throughout design. We continue to test interest price points, and test experiences. We also work with design-thinking companies that help us to do some of that as well.
A lot of companies, I’m noticing lately, are hitting the consumer market with these kinds of toys, but they’re also going to the education market and providing classroom tools. Is that something that Mattel is thinking?
Yeah, part of our Tynker partnership—they’re actually in a third of schools in the US. Part of our strategy with Tynker is to test and learn and grow. So we’ve actually been partners with them since 2015, and I think we’ve put 4 million kids through the program. We’re reinvigorating that, really focusing… I think that if we can create really compelling consumer experiences, that kids will want to learn in the classroom, and we can have a company like Tynker that we work with to partner in that space. I think there’s a there there.
I think that might be really compelling, because your toys and brands are so familiar.
I think the big thing with digital, with AI, with all of these aspects—it’s all user experience. I mean, AI is a great example. AI is not super compelling unless you’ve got a great user experience and a great use case for it. So it goes back to what my career’s been all about. How do you make technology useful? Whether it’s a business system, whether it’s when I was at DirecTV building applications for our 15,000 call center agents or when I was at Pearson doing educational products. It’s really about finding the sweet spot of compelling user experiences, and then technology’s an enabler.
Once you know how you want the toy to work, then you just figure out how to make it do that.
And [you] think about creative ways to do it, in a fashion that’s inexpensive and accessible. The Kamigami, I love. So we worked with a company called Dash Robotics, and they are a couple of robotics engineers that worked at Berkeley, and they were doing DARPA work. And they were like, ‘Toys, that will be more fun!’ (laughs)
It’s definitely a unique product. I love the fact that it’s this very inexpensive material and it just makes this great toy.
The really cool thing, the thing I really appreciate about it, is the biomimicry. The Kamigami bugs are interesting because they really are buglike. When we talked to them about the bipedal kind of nature, I was actually very skeptical. I was like, how do you make this thing work, not tip over, you know? And these guys were really amazing. They came up with this product that I think is pretty unique. So, the biomimicry, taking that kind of work that’s being done at DARPA (laughs) and figuring out how to put it in a really cheap, inexpensive toy, that a child can build; that’s really cool, I think.
You brought up AI before, and we’ve seen some very nascent attempts for companies to build AI into toys, and it’s never really been very successful. I think there’s a lot of potential there. Is that something you’ve given some thought to?
Yeah, you know part of the cool thing about being at a toy company is, when you think about kids playing with AI on Siri, or on Alexa or whatever, its such an open kind of environment. The cool thing about a toy company is we can actually create a walled garden which is much safer and private and really takes the considerations to the child into play.
That said, I think that the difficulty with AI is user experience. You can create amazing AI products, really super smart, really capable, but if they’re not fun, right? And so, if you look at our lineup, probably the best example of where it’s worked well is in the Barbie Dreamhouse, the natural language processing [NLP] integration for [the Hello Dreamhouse], because it’s a play pattern that they understand. It’s a physical product that they can play with, and it’s got an enhancement around AI.
Instead of it being, ‘I have to interact with this toy as my way of having fun,’ it’s, ‘I can play with my Barbie, and I can move it around in the Dreamhouse, and then I can put it in the elevator, and [tell the elevator to] go up.’
It’s not like you’re plunking down a bunch of money and hoping your child wants to talk to it. You’re spending money on something that you know she wants, a dollhouse and it’s got an enhancement.
Let’s really use what we’ve got, which is great toys. We’ve got a great relationship with the parents; we’ve got great brands; we’ve got a ton of information on how children learn through physical play. And then, how do we enrich it?
Yeah, that’s a great approach, I think. And I liked seeing that in such a major brand as well.
The nice thing about Tynker is they’ve done it from a curriculum standpoint… And you start out with really rudimentary—how do I go forward, forward, forward, jump? Then, it adds loops, and it adds less linear programming capabilities. They have the ability to take you all the way to tech-school programming… I don’t know if you can call that ‘gamified,’ because it’s supposed to be a game. In a really compelling digital game way, how do you take them from no understanding of kind of logic, linear logic, to being able to fully program something.
In terms of taking one of these kids’ coding languages and extending that into a real-life programming language, is that much of a leap?
No, it’s not. I think the leap is, ‘Is the child interested in it?’ They may go through the digital aspects of it, and go, ‘I’m done,’ but from that, you learn logic. And logic is important in anything you do. Whether you’re trying to write an application or transform an organization, it’s all about troubleshooting and understanding flows, and understanding how things fit together. Even if they go through aspects of it, then learn that they don’t want to be an engineer or a software developer, they’re gonna learn a lot from it, and they’re gonna learn a lot that is very applicable in the STEM world. Because, frankly, I think everybody these days has to have some understanding of codes and apps.
It’s not like back in the day when I was reading PC Magazine, and if you needed something, you came to the nerd closet and talked to us! Now, if you need something, you talk to your child. And they probably know more about it than the IT department does.
So I think if nothing else, I think out of that, we’ll inspire some kids to be engineers, and other kids will know more about logic, and they’ll get something out of it as well. We’re not trying to force them into it as much as just trying to educate them and just help them think differently and learn.