Personal Tech

Learning tools for the kiddy derby

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Mark Baard
July 14, 2008

I loathe any toy that requires batteries - unless it's for me, of course.

But whenever my mom and her boyfriend visit, they leave behind a pile of screeching dolls with flapping wings and trucks that play repetitive tunes no amount of Scotch can wash from memory.

My daughters, Maeve and Oona, love the electronic toys, so I disable them only when no one is around to complain.

Still, many of our friends are mad for LeapFrog gadgets, thinking they might give their tots a leg up in the kiddy derby that starts at age "2.9." (That's early childhood educators' silly shorthand for "two years, nine months.")

LeapFrog's philosophy appears to be that if you cover a loud, garish, electronic toy with characters from the English alphabet (we have a LeapFrog musical caterpillar like this), you can turn any kid into an Einstein.

The company's new Leapster2 and Didj hand-held devices ( take the "digital learning" concept a step further: Your kid can use the gadgets to play games with recognizable characters, such as Wall-E, and you can track their learning improvements on your PC.

LeapFrog's online tool, Learning Path, will be up and running in August. It will tell you how well your kid is doing with the math and language skills that LeapFrog's games ($25 to $30 apiece) are teaching them.

But the hand-held toys, which connect to your PC via USB, are available now.

The Leapster2, at about $70, is for 4- to 8-year-olds. The Didj, for 6- to 10-year-olds, lets you customize game play to focus on your child's specific learning needs. The Didj will set you back about $90.

Spy gear

Sneaky flashlight camera spells trouble

The next time you get caught canoodling with your sweetheart in a parking lot, you might find yourself not just at the wrong end of a policeman's flashlight, but on his hidden camera, too.

A new flashlight from Swann has a baked-in digital camera and digital video recorder that work day or night, making it perfect for "covert surveillance," the company says.

In the United Kingdom, light and traffic poles bristle with cameras; there seems to be no hiding from them. Here, we seem to be expected to spy on each another.

Witness Nancy Grace dissecting the cellphone videos of classroom brawls, the "gotcha" moments caught on nanny cams, and the petty crimes stupid kids capture on tiny hand-held cameras.

Swann says its customers have been calling for something like the flashlight camera, but they have not said which customers they are talking about. I can understand a police officer wanting to cover his behind against false abuse claims, with a video documenting a traffic stop.

But the $500 FlashlightDVR strikes me as yet another electronic eye for use by Peeping Toms and Homeland Security.

Mobile phones

Flip-and-twist for a touchscreen experience

My best friends growing up were the sons of Japanese businessmen, living in a Queens apartment complex we called Tokyo Towers, overlooking Little Neck Bay. Sadayuki and Hiroki taught me Japanese pitching techniques, and I encouraged their tastes for Boston cream pie. They also turned me onto Japanese comics and electronics.

The Japanese obsession stuck with me: Today, I am all about Tokyoflash watches and Japanese sneakers and phones that always seem several steps ahead of the clunkers we are all dragging around in the States.

My latest attachment is to the SH906i, a crisp, blue, flip-and-twist phone from Sharp. (The phone is available in other colors, as well.) It flips vertically to reveal a three-inch screen and a keypad. It has a touchpad and a mouse button centered above the keys.

The SH906i is also a touchscreen handset. When you twist the screen and fold it back, it begins to resemble the iPhone.

The touchscreen uses ClearPad technology ( It allows you to enter text (including complicated Japanese characters) on the screen with your finger, and it recognizes pinches and swirls as commands in certain applications.

The screen itself is a brilliant display for watching video streams and Windows media files.

Sharp does not skimp on the extras, either: It has a 5.2-megapixel flash camera, which you can control strictly through the touchscreen interface.

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