Cherished Brands and 21st Century Tech: How Mattel Is Building the Future of Playtime

How Mattel is incorporating digital tech into real-world playtime experiences for kids.

Written by Quinten Dol
Published on Sep. 04, 2020
Cherished Brands and 21st Century Tech: How Mattel Is Building the Future of Playtime
mattel hot wheels
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It might surprise you to learn that Mattel — creator of classic toys and brands like the Magic 8 Ball, Barbie and Hot Wheels — has a digital tech team. The goal, according to Sven Gerjets, who joined Mattel in 2017 as its first ever CTO in 2017, is to “use technology to help enhance these play experiences and engage kids in new ways.”

What does play-enhanced-by-technology look like? Some of Mattel’s recent product announcements offer a clue — an augmented reality version of Pictionary where players draw figures in the air that are then rendered within an app, for example. And then there’s Hot Wheels id, where the iconic miniature cars, tracks and boosters are implanted with near-field communication (NFC) chips. The chips create a virtual twin for every toy vehicle within the Hot Wheels id app, allowing kids to measure speeds, lap times and complete virtual challenges — launching cars through an imaginary flaming hoop, for example — in the real world.

The investment appears to be paying off, too. The NFC-enabled Hot Wheels Smart Track Kit and its TechMods car — another toy that blurs the line between the physical and virtual — both made the shortlist for this year’s Toy of the Year Awards.

With product lines aimed at children that span the physical and virtual world, Mattel obviously isn’t your average tech team. In an interview with Built In LA, Gerjets explained how the company’s mission influences the technology it adopts and guides product decisions. 

 

Sven Gerjets
Chief Technology Officer • Mattel

You were Mattel’s first CTO when you joined the company in 2017. Why did the company decide to open up a CTO role?

Mattel has a long history of toy innovation with a focus on empowering the next generation to explore the wonder of childhood and reach their full potential. We have iconic brands that have thrived for generations, thanks to constant reinvention.

The CTO plays a role in that reinvention. The role was created in 2017 to identify opportunities to integrate technology into toys and offer new ways for kids to experience our brands. Over the past few years, we’ve introduced connected play toys such as Hot Wheels id, which leverages near-field communication technology to bring physical cars into the digital world in the form of a digital twin, and Pictionary Air, which is powered by computer vision technology and gives families a new way to draw in augmented reality.

 

What technologies are creating the biggest buzz in the toy industry and why?

At Mattel, we are focused on creating immersive play experiences through our iconic portfolio of brands — from Barbie and Hot Wheels to American Girl and Fisher-Price. When it comes to technology and toys, it is not about the tech — it is about what the tech enables. 

There are two different types of “tech” toys that we focus on. The first are toy-only experiences, which require all the technology to be embedded in the toy. In these scenarios, communications capabilities such as RF Mesh, infrared and NFC can be very powerful tools. The second type of toys are those that connect with other devices, such as mobile phones and tablets. In these instances, we incorporate computer vision, image recognition with machine learning at the edge and augmented reality into the play experiences.

 

We focus on enhancing play patterns that kids already love.”

What is Mattel's criteria or approach to integrating technology into its toys? 

We focus on enhancing play patterns that kids already love. We do this by partnering technologists with toy designers to create compelling play experiences. Privacy and security is a top priority, and everything we build is done through that lens to ensure our toys are safe and secure.

 

What technologies are Mattel most bullish on, and why? 

We’ve been actively leveraging NFC technology. In 2019, we launched Hot Wheels id which was recognized with several industry award nominations. Hot Wheels id uses NFC technology to create uniquely identifiable cars that have digital twins, enabling players to blend traditional Hot Wheels play with a digitally connected racing system. We are now extending these capabilities into other Hot Wheels products such as the Hot Wheels Ultimate Garage, which is rolling out this year.

 

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What’s it like to work on the tech team at Mattel? 

We create toys that make kids smile every day and there is truly nothing better than that. Building these toys is a team sport. It takes a team of toy designers, hardware engineers, firmware developers, software developers, mobile app and gaming developers, and marketers, to name a few, who are all working together to create immersive connected play experiences. Cross-functional teamwork is even more critical here than with any other product I’ve developed.

 

Responses have been edited for clarity and length.

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