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Friday, 22 December, 2000, 09:20 GMT
Presents of Christmas future
Sony's robotic dog
In the last of a special three-part series, we complete our look at toys of the past, present and future by asking: What comes next?

With a good 365 shopping days left until Christmas 2001, BBC News Online attempts to forewarn you of next year's toy crazes.

So what will be weighing down Santa's sleigh next Christmas?

Gerry Anderson, creator of the Thunderbirds
"Tough luck kids! These are mine!"
That's an "astonishingly difficult" question, says John Baulch, publisher of Toys 'n' Playthings magazine.

"The toy industry has become a fashion business, making it almost impossible to predict what's going to be big."

In the past, the adult and child world arguably had much in common. Today's children are initiates in a culture which baffles many parents.

Little adults

Catherine Howell, curator at the Bethnal Green National Museum of Childhood, says television has hastened this process.

"A lot of toys used to be just miniature versions of adult things. That definitely changed with the coming of telly. Adults are now more confused about what children want."

Poo'Chi robot dog
Chips with everything
The recent Pokemon craze was a case in point. Even supermarket chain Tesco employed a seven-year-old to advise them on the intricacies of the money-spinning Japanese toys and collecting cards.

Backed up by a TV cartoon series and film, Pokemon collecting cards created such interest among children they were dubbed "Kiddie crack", a reference to the highly-addictive drug.

Cracking the market

Mr Baulch says as a parent he is only too aware of the influence that TV and videos have over his children.

Television crossovers, such as the Teletubbies, have proved so lucrative, he predicts such licensed products will continue to dominate the toy industry.

The Hoobs
Clear the roads, the Hoobs are coming
"The Teletubbies unlocked a new market. The show was one of the first to be aimed at very young children."

The Hoobs, a TV series from Muppet creators the Jim Henson Company, is set to hit British screens in January - and Mr Baulch expects a wave of merchandising will follow.

This may not be all bad for grown-ups, he says. "Parents feel a bit safer buying replicas of characters their children already love, rather than buying a more generic toy."

Top toys of 2000
Teksta robot dog
Who wants to be a Millionaire? (game)
Thunderbirds Tracy Island
Amazing Ally (talking doll)
Bob the Builder (doll)
Princess Bride Barbie (doll)
Poo'chi robot dog
Pokemon Pokedex (organiser)
Baby Annabel (doll)

Source: BATR

That's not to say "generic" toys cannot be a Christmas sensation. Micro Scooters and Teksta robot dogs are this season's top sellers, according to the British Association of Toy Retailers (BATR).

However, in the eyes on many children some link to a beloved TV series "adds extra value" to a toy, says Mr Baulch.

"People say licensed toys tend to be popular for a few years, then drop away, only to return. However, I suspect that such toys will continue to be extremely popular in years to come."

Tracy Island, a model of International Rescue HQ from the re-released 1960s Thunderbirds TV series, was 2000's surprise hit.

But Mr Baulch warns that bringing out toys to link with any old retro TV show is not a foolproof formula for success.

Bill and Ben
"You should see someone about that bad neck, Ben."
"When Thunderbirds came back on TV, dads sat down for some nostalgia and the kids got hooked too. The toys sold because it is a brilliant programme that still stands up."

Industry insiders say replicas of Bill and Ben - veteran TV puppets set for a BBC revival - could do very well.

Dolls based on the moon-dwelling mice from the 1970s Clangers TV series may not resonate with today's children, some commentators have suggested.

Chipping in

Makers of the Clangers toys might consider adding some electronic gadgetry. Microchips feature in seven of this year's top 10 toys.

The Clangers
Will there be a thirst for the Clangers?
Toy expert Catherine Howell says the first toy to really combine the enduring appeal of cuddly toys and our fascination with the hi-tech was the Furby.

Mr Baulch says children now expect a good degree of electronic interactivity in their toys.

"When my daughter was confronted by a doll which didn't have a microchip in it she kept pressing it waiting for something to happen. You can't take electonics away."

Construction toy company Lego and the makers of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? board game have used microchips in their products.

On yer bike

The firm behind the Tracy Island model are blaming a lack of silicon chips for the dire shortage of the Thunderbirds toy.

The future of low-tech isn't entirely bleak. A toy copying the formula of the ubiquitous Micro Scooter could be the hit of 2001.

Woman on a Micro Scooter
"This scooter makes me look so mature."
The vehicles - an aluminium revamp of the push scooters of old - first caught on with teenagers and young adults. Mr Baulch says this created a demand among children seeking to emulate their elders.

However, marketing a toy to appeal to children young and old is easier said than done.

"Once young children pick up a craze, older children turn off. This is one theory for the cooling of the Pokémon craze."

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