Toymakers Study Troops, And Vice Versa


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Drizzt
March 31, 2003, 04:46 PM
The New York Times

March 30, 2003, Sunday, Late Edition - Final

SECTION: Section 9; Page 1; Column 4; Style Desk

LENGTH: 1486 words

HEADLINE: Toymakers Study Troops, And Vice Versa

BYLINE: By WILLIAM L. HAMILTON

BODY:
TWO days after the war with Iraq began, Jerry Whitaker, who works at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass., a military research organization, got an e-mail message from Hasbro, the nation's second-largest toy manufacturer.

Hasbro, which makes G.I. Joe and his accessorized worlds of war, including a "desert arena" collection introduced after Operation Desert Storm in 1991, wanted the latest information on chemical protection suits.

Mr. Whitaker wasn't particularly surprised. The Army and Hasbro have worked together for years.

The $20.3 billion toy industry is closely watching the Iraq war with an eye toward new product introductions for Christmas. And seated next to it at the television set, flipping through the same news weeklies and military enthusiast magazines, is the $10.3 billion video game industry.

The two industries know, from experience with Desert Storm, the raid of Mogadishu in Somalia and the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, that new battle tools will be showcased by the armed services, and they could be new battle toys by December.

The relationship is not a handoff, in fact, but a trade.

"The M-16 rifle is based on something Mattel did," said Glenn Flood, a spokesman for the Pentagon, which is looking to toys and electronic games for parts, prototypes and ideas that can be developed effectively and inexpensively as battlefield tools. Inspiration has come from model airplanes (reconnaissance drones), "supersoaker" water guns (quick-loading assault weapons), cheap cellular phones for teenagers (video-capable walkie-talkies) and gaming control panels (for unmanned robotic vehicles).

Because the newest generation of soldiers grew up playing with electronic toys and games, the symbiosis between them is nearly genetic. Today's troops received their basic training as children.

Durability and miniaturization are a toy's basic design briefs. It makes them, in an enhanced military version, eminently suitable for deployment in the field, where stresses and weight are key concerns in troop movement.

Though full development of a new toy takes months, toymakers and retailers, for their part, have been quick off the mark. Hasbro issued a desert Tactical Advisor figure, modeled after the Army's desert Delta Forces, in January. At Toys "R" Us at Times Square in New York, G.I. Joe's patrol jeeps and strike vehicles have taken positions front and center.

Small Blue Planet, a large independent toy retailer, introduced a series of "Special Forces: Showdown With Iraq" figures, assembled from parts of existing figures to duplicate as accurately as possible what was observed in the news media during the troop buildup in Kuwait. Two of the four models sold out immediately.

"We started work when the 'Showdown' buzzword hit the airwaves," said Anthony Allen, Small Blue Planet's president. "There's fierce competition among manufacturers to get the new things out first."

Christian Borman, a president of Plan-B Toys -- which makes military action figures based on the search for Mr. bin Laden in Afghanistan, as well as a Delta Force sniper and a Marine Force Recon newly outfitted last month from television coverage in Kuwait -- said, "If you know what you're looking for, you can see it on the screen."

At the American International Toy Fair in February, Mr. Borman had a piece of sales advice from a national buyer for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, which operates stores on military bases and online.

"He told us we should wait until the war starts, and whatever logos we saw on CNN, to put that on our toys," Mr. Borman said. "He didn't want to consider them until they were specific to the war."

What the toy manufacturers can't see, they ask for. They have excellent contacts in the military and with its contractors, working with the armed services directly at research and development centers like Mr. Whitaker's in Natick or the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California in Marina del Rey, both set up by the military itself.

Though the current war has divided public opinion -- consumer protests prompted Walgreens and Kmart to pull Easter baskets with military action figures off the shelves this month -- the toy industry cannot afford to be ambivalent.

The military action figure has four basic "theaters of operation," Mr. Borman explained -- desert, arctic, urban and jungle.

"If we leave out this war, that's 25 percent of our possibilities," he said. Mr. Borman's company, like several others including Hasbro, has hedged its bets by introducing "heroic" figures like firefighters that are not specifically military in aspect.

In addition to a Desert N.B.C. (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) Trooper, "Josh Simon," which Dragon Models, a leading military action figure manufacturer, rushed to market late last month, it sells an Army National Guard "Homeland Security Amy." Sales of heroic and military figures soared last year. G.I. Joe's business was up 46 percent from 2001.

Realistic detail is an important part of the excitement of a toy like an action figure, said Dr. Darlene M. Hammell, a physician and clinical professor in family medicine at the University of British Columbia, who studies children's play.

"They'd be thrilled if they had something like on the news," she explained. "The more realistic it looks, and the harder it is for a child to distinguish it from the fantasy of play -- the greater the problem."

As younger children have embraced electronic toys, a significant part of the market for military figures and games is now adult collectors, many of them current or former armed-service personnel, who provide the toy industry with valuable access to the military.

"They help us, procuring uniforms or putting us in touch with the Defense Department," said Laurie Abel, a spokeswoman for Blue Box Toys. "We want to be up to the minute on this. We've actually gotten specs from defense contractors."

Because of expanding development costs and tighter budgets, military contractors are increasingly interested in commercial applications for products, including toys. Zodiac of North America, for example, which manufactures inflatable rafts used by the Navy Seals, licensed its name, logo and the design for the Zodiac F-470, a Special Forces boat, to Hasbro.

" 'Transfer' is a key phrase in the defense industry," said Leona C. Bull, a senior writer at the Journal of Aerospace and Defense Industry News, a trade publication. "With budgets flat-lining, companies that used to rely on defense now have to reach outside the box."

The military itself is also reaching out to private industry.

The Institute for Creative Technologies, created by the Army in 1999, is a cooperation between the entertainment, video game and computer science industries and the Army to develop "immersive" training simulations. Immersion, or the degree of reality a player experiences, is a key sales attribute in the video game market, and vital in a military simulation. The Army now has its own game, America's Army, which can be downloaded without charge from its recruiting Web site, www.americasarmy.com, in a series of playing levels.

In addition to developing new technologies, an Army spokesman, Maj. Amy Hannah, said that "the gaming and entertainment industries have assisted in battle scenarios and story lines that have helped the Army understand what it might be facing in battle arenas or with terrorism." In other words, game designers' demonic "blue sky" thinking on what could happen in a war, especially urban combat, outpaces the military's experience with new enemies.

At the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, a 15-inch remote-controlled truck, the Dragon Runner, now close to deployment, is guided by a six-button keypad modeled after Sony's PlayStation 2 video game control, explained Maj. Greg Heines, because military designers felt confident that soldiers would be familiar with it, and by default, partially trained to use it.

Its flying partner, the Dragon Eye, a five-pound unmanned remote-controlled reconnaissance air vehicle -- which was introduced in Afghanistan and is in the field with the First Marine Division in Iraq -- can be launched with a bungee cord or a running throw, much like the model airplanes that inspired it. If eventually a toy is based on it, the Dragon Eye will have come full circle.

Mr. Whitaker at the U.S. Soldier Systems Center in Natick said that in several cases, the center has provided toy manufacturers with images of their future efforts. The Objective Force Warrior, the next generation of uniform and equipment for soldiers, with a helmet that integrates scopes and communication devices, has been shown to Hasbro. The Army might not have it until 2010.

"It's kind of cool to see this stuff being fielded by G.I. Joe," Mr. Whitaker said.


http://www.nytimes.com

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Dave Markowitz
March 31, 2003, 09:10 PM
"The M-16 rifle is based on something Mattel did," said Glenn Flood, a spokesman for the Pentagon,

Idiot. I can't believe this myth is still floating around.

blades67
March 31, 2003, 09:24 PM
He's not the idiot.:rolleyes:

Mattel made a plastic that was the insiration for the material used to make the handguards and buttstock of the M16, as well as the proccess for molding them.

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