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Friday, 21 December, 2001, 10:45 GMT
All I want for Christmas... is to defy gravity
Harry Potter commands broomstick
If only life could be like the movies
Christmas is imminent and parents are facing ever more hard-edged demands for hi-tech Harry Potter merchandise, complains BBC News Online's Chris Horrie, from bitter personal experience.

I've already checked out the official Harry Potter Nimbus 2000 plastic "flying" broomstick.

But, no matter how sophisticated toy-makers become, plastic and microchip interpretations of Hogwarts devices are bound to disappoint.

Dean Kamen with the Segway scooter
"Forget flying, I present to you the world's first invisible broomstick"
There's no doubt that the toy, which boasts "four-way motion-sensitive technology" and "awesome digitised sound effects" does everything promised by the manufacturers.

But since it doesn't actually fly, it looks to me like turning magically into 39.99 worth of brightly packaged, high-impact, battery-powered frustration by Boxing Day.

Children, you see, are not best known for their stoic acceptance of the depressing laws of physics.

Anticipating this problem I went for help to the product design department at the University of Huddersfield, leaders in the application of new technology to product design.

No fly zone

Encouraged by the fact the Yorkshire boffins had recently come up with an "intelligent running shoe" - the perfect contradiction for a couch potato like me - I asked if they were up for the challenge of producing a Harry Potter-style broomstick that actually flies.

Ghost of Christmas Past (part one): The Furby
The short answer was "no".

"If I could think of a way of doing that I wouldn't be here would I? I'd be a multi-millionaire," said Huddersfield design lecturer David Swann.

Good point. But if set the same task by one of the university's commercial partners, he continued, the department would start by gathering a group of students to "brainstorm it".

This was how they came up with a blood-testing machine shaped like a Gameboy, for young diabetics; and another thought up a child's bike in the form of a giant Tamagotchi which smiles when pedalled and complains when - more likely - is thrown against solid brick walls.

Cruising for a bruising

But these breakthroughs, it struck me, were more about changing existing grown-up devices into toys rather than changing a toy plastic Nimbus 2000 broomstick into a piece of grown-up gear which could function like, say, a cruise missile built around a child-friendly safety-saddle instead of a tactical nuclear warhead.

Ghost of Christmas Past (part two): The Teksta
That might be one way to go, conceded Mr Swann. But cruise missiles cost 400,000 a piece and, while they can fly round corners in the required Nimbus 2000 way, they can only make one journey before exploding in a ball of fire - thus failing to solve the post Christmas Day disappointment problem.

Mr Swann thought "maglev" - magnetic levitation - might offer a solution. But to achieve the go-anywhere, anytime effect would mean covering the entire planet in metal sheeting.

So far so good. But it is difficult enough to find supplies of "AA" batteries for malfunctioning electronic toys over the holiday period.

Trying to commission the hundred thousand or so fully functioning nuclear power stations needed to fuel a global "maglev" environment would stretch the Boxing Day efforts of even the most resourceful newsagent and may, for practical purposes, be regarded as out of the question.

That's cheating

With cruise missile and maglev technology ruled out, Mr Swann thought the best option would be simulation of a sort.

Santa Claus
"Flying broomstick? I've never heard such nonsense"
"You could hook up a broomstick to a forklift truck for example," he mused. "And then move the child about by driving the fork lift truck."

Hmmm. I don't know about Huddersfield, but, quite apart from the danger of knocking over the Christmas tree, I'm not sure that sort of thing would cut the mustard for sensation-crazed pre-teen consumers in the rest of the country.

Mr Swann then steered the conversation towards the magic wand idea.

Designing and producing one of those, he thought, was "much more realistic".

Magic (of a sort)

A start has already been made with the TV remote control which, he says, "does appear to work like magic to lots of people - children and adults alike".

Wand waving wizard Dumbledore from the Harry Potter film
"Some sort of personal device which controls the environment - in the sense of electronic gadgets around the house - would be highly feasible," he added.

"Anything that has electronic controls could be affected by it, creating the effect of magic."

Such a device - a TV remote control which can also turn on your microwave oven and set off your car alarm (on purpose) - might excite grown ups, but it is unlikely to turn on an eight-year-old.

Magic of the mind

In fact, after considering the matter carefully, I decided that if the toy industry comes up with an object which can match or outstrip the creativity of a child's imagination that would be a sad day for all of us.

My own tip for a tantrum-free Boxing Day is a not an electronic broomstick or the latest consumer craze, but a good supply of pipe cleaners, coloured paper, building blocks, string and empty cardboard boxes.

Doubtless to the annoyance of the overheated Christmas industry there is little profit to be had in supplying these things.

But they are all that is really required. Childish imagination - a force greater even than Hollywood marketing and magnetic levitation - will do the rest.

Have you always dreamed of an "impossible" toy - something so fanciful it has yet to be invented? Tell us more.

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See also:

19 Nov 01 | Reviews
Harry Potter: Your views
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