To start, one might look no further than childrens toys.
"The impact of the Internet on our children will, I believe, become more significant in the long run than any other technological breakthrough in the 20th century," said Peter Eio, then chairman of the Toy Manufacturers of America (now the Toy Industry Association), two years ago. "When properly used, it challenges our skills and our intellect and adds a new dimension to individual learning never before available to a mass audience."
When Eio made those comments, one of the most popular toys was the $30 Hasbro Furby, which can learn 200 words in English or another language, allowing each Furby to "adapt" to its owner. Furby was so competent in linguistics that the National Security Agency banned the toy from its building.
While the Furby earned the classification "interactive," it was not connected to the online world. But with a little imagination, its easy to picture a Furby linked to the Internet through a wireless connection that would allow 24/7 communications.
Gaze slightly beyond the horizon and that kind of gimmick looks like childs play. Researchers in artificial intelligence and robotics are thinking way beyond talking toys. And scientists and mathematicians delving into computers using quantum mechanics or genetic DNA may someday deliver a machine that will make the supercomputer look like an abacus.
In the meantime, however, hit the IntelPlay Web site to see what kids are doing - and what the future may have in store. A product called the Computer Sound Morpher is a handheld toy that children can use to record their friends voices and download them onto a PC, where they can add sound effects and distortions, remove or mix words, animate with talking faces, then e-mail the final products to friends.
And former junk bond financier Michael Milkens Knowledge Universe offers five new Leap Frog educational toys that connect to the Internet, including the Turbo Twist Speller that plays word games with kids to musical accompaniment.
Even toddlers get Internet toys, like Neurosmiths MusicBlocks and Little Linguist blocks, which introduces kids ages 1 and up to new languages.
"Instead of placing the child in front of the computer, now we can take the computer chip and put it in a childlike environment," said John Sosoka, co-founder of Neurosmith in Long Beach, Calif. For the older kids, Cybiko of Bloomingdale, Ill., boasts the first digital, wireless handheld entertainment and communications computer aimed at the youth market. Offering wireless chat, interactive multiplayer gaming, free downloads, a music composer, a graphics editor and other diversions, the colorful Cybiko made its debut for last years holiday sales rush with financial support from AOL.
Its no surprise that companies are taking tweens so seriously. According to Jupiter Media Metrix, the average teenager spends more than five hours per month online. Nearly half research goods and services online, and 15 percent buy online. By 2005, Jupiter predicts, tweens and teens will spend $4.9 billion on the Internet and another $21.4 billion on products researched online. In four years, Jupiter forecasts, the online population of kids ages 2 to 12 will reach 26.9 million, almost three times the 10.4 million kids online in 1999.
While that demographic represents a promising market in itself, the greater value in targeting teens and tweens comes in development of products and services with an eye toward their adult years. One Web site thats zeroing in on that adult-transition market is Bolt, designed for the 15-to-24 year-old-age group.
"This audience has always been very, very critical for markets to reach because its right at that sweet spot where teens are becoming young adults," Bolt CEO Dan Pelson said. "Theyre a critical component for every consumer site out there."