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Plugged In

Hi-tech spy toys are no longer child’s play

Plugged In
Spy toys

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Keeping secrets gets harder every day. Your employer is watching you check your bank statements online during your lunch hour. That guy you met once at a party is following your every move on Facebook. And the NSA already knows what color underwear you’re wearing. Tomorrow.

Forget all those prying eyes, though: perhaps the biggest new threat to your privacy could be your own children.

At least, it will be if they get their sneaky hands on the latest range of spy-themed toys from Air Hogs creator Spin Master. After debuting to considerable acclaim at the New York Toy Fair back in February, they’re showing up in retail stores just in time for Christmas -- and they’re heralding the start of a dramatic shift in the toy market.

Axiomatic to computer science is the principle that technology always gets cheaper and more powerful, so it’s no surprise that intricate electronics are a common sight in even the cheapest toys these days. But part two of that rule is that the improvements keep on accelerating, and that’s not been so noticeable on toy store shelves.

Until now. Meet Spin Master’s Panosphere 360, probably the most impressive (and, for parents and siblings, the most frightening) toy in Spin Master’s 2013 lineup. It’s a miniature digital video recorder in the mold of the GoPro, the simple, boxy camera beloved of extreme sports enthusiasts and reality TV show producers. The Panosphere is one of those, only with a lens that lets it capture a 360-degree panoramic view of its surroundings, in 720p video, and for $60.

Stick it on the kitchen ceiling, then, and you’ll be able to catch dad sneaking swigs of the cooking sherry in hi-def. Put it on a shelf in the hallway, and find out which cat keeps on pooping on the rug. Hide it under a towel in the bathroom, and...actually, don’t do that. It’s the kind of spy gadget that would have had Roger Moore-era James Bond spilling his dry martini in eagerness.

Here’s the key to its appeal. Though it’s packaged like a toy, the Panosphere is a perfectly capable camera in its own right -- not quite up to the near broadcast-grade GoPro, but also a couple of hundred bucks cheaper. The versatility of the device isn’t lost on Spin Master, either. It includes a strap that’ll let you mount the Panosphere on a wrist, or bike handlebar, or, well, just about anything to which you’d want to mount a camera.

The rest of Spin Master’s line is no less “Mission Impossible:” walkie-talkies with concealable, throat-mounted microphones; stealthy, suction-cup-equipped darts that let you listen in to conversations; laser-grid security systems and more. They probably won’t self-destruct in five seconds, either. They’re made of plastic, but they’re a cut above your average semi-disposable plaything.

Spin Master isn’t the only firm to have identified the burgeoning desire for high-tech toys. Indeed, Lego -- probably the world’s most recognizable toy brand -- has been at it since 2009. Its Mindstorms range of programmable robots has become a fixture in middle-school classrooms, and its just-released EV3 platform boasts a laundry-list of features that’d put many smart-phones to shame: Bluetooth connectivity, a USB port, wi-fi, 64 MB of memory, voice control, and an ARM 9 processor running a fully-featured Linux operating system.

What's next? Better, cheaper, faster, more complex, that’s what. Take the glut of reliable, remote-controlled flying toys that have flooded stores over the last few years -- largely thanks to the efforts of Spin Master, as it happens. Taking pride of place in the Air Hogs line this year is a quadcopter that’s agile, fast, stable, and impressively easy to control. How long will it be before they figure out how to strap a camera to it?

Give it a year. Larger remote-controlled quadcopters are already able to hoist high-quality video cameras, but the price is still in adult enthusiast territory, for now. Before long they’ll have descended to Santa’s budget -- and then not even the skies will be safe.

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