The New Techno Toys


D’ARCY JENISH August 17 1992

The New Techno Toys


D’ARCY JENISH August 17 1992

The New Techno Toys



After three months of soggy weekends, chilly evenings and rained-out barbecues, Canadians in many parts of the country may well remember 1992 as the year that summer never came. For some Canadians it has been a season to stay indoors and grumble about the weather, or to rent a movie, curl up on the couch and forget about summer. It has also served as a cogent reminder of just how highly Canadians have come to value leisure time, and recreational pursuits. Another, more potent indicator is Canadians’ fascination with high-priced technological products and their eagerness to purchase them. Canadians now spend millions of dollars annually, even in recessionary times, buying recreational products such as boats and bicycles, sports vehicles and stereos, home computers and video cameras. And, say the experts, there is a significance to those purchases that goes beyond simple recreation. “These products extend the self, they take human qualities and magnify them,” said Grant McCracken, an anthropologist at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. “And we now live in a culture where we have the liberty to try to define ourselves.”

For those with time on their hands, and money to spare, there is an almost endless choice of ways to expand and define themselves. A selection of some of the newest and hottest high-tech creations appear on the following pages. The redesigned, re-engineered Mazda RX-7 (right), a sports car that handles hairpin turns at 110 km per hour, is aimed at buyers who want the capabilities of a race car in a street vehicle. An increasingly popular embellishment of home-video viewing is the fourto eight-speaker system called surround sound, which is still growing in popularity following its introduction several years ago. For the recreational boater, there is the global positioning system, a device that takes readings of latitude and longitude from satellites, and simplifies the use of navigational charts.


Rugged mountain bikes, which offer superior performance on rural terrain and city streets alike, now represent about 65 per cent of all bicycles sold in North America. Since 1984, Rocky Mountain Bicycles of Richmond, B.C., has emerged as a leading manufacturer of high-tech bikes that range in price from $700 to $4,400. Its Altitude model, which sells for about $3,100, has a made-in-Canada, hand-built chrome-molybdenum frame and wheels that are also hand-built. The 24%-lb. Altitude also features high-compression shock absorbers on the front forks to dampen the most jarring bumps on rocky trails.

Many of the new products are creations of inventive minds outside Canada, but Canadian innovators are making their mark in the recreational market as well. A bicycle maker in British Columbia, for one, has grabbed a healthy share of the growing market for rugged, high-tech mountain bikes (box) and Valcourt, Que.-based Bombardier Inc. is one of the big producers of the peppy little Personal Water Vehicles that are proliferating on Canadian lakes and rivers (page 39).

In the eyes of some social scientists, the availability of such diverse leisure products is a sign of the times. “The accumulation of objects is a big part of 20th century consumer society,” said Brian Sutton-Smith, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and author of the 1986 book Toys As Culture. “If you go back a couple of hundred years in history, you find that houses were barely furnished. We have become increasingly materialistic.”

The acquisitive side of the Canadian population is evident in figures published annually by the household surveys division of Statistics Canada. Last year, one-quarter of all Canadian households reported owning two or more automobiles, and 68 per cent contained two or more telephones. More than three-quarters of those surveyed owned two or more radios and 41 per cent had two or more color television sets. Almost 70 per cent of Canadian households reported owning a video


Slipping behind the wheel of the new Mazda RX-7 (above) is like sinking into a comfortable leather armchair. That feeling vanishes with a touch of the accelerator, as a surge of power erupts from the 1.3-litre, high-performance rotary engine. Introduced last December, the finely engineered, redesigned RX-7 sells for about $41,000. A sunroof and leather upholstery raise the price to $45,000—still a bargain for an automobile in a class where Porsches start at $54,000 and Ferraris at $131,500. To improve speed and performance, the RX-7 takes advantage of new lightweight, high-strength materials.

cassette recorder, up from 35 per cent five years earlier, and close to 73 per cent owned tape recorders.

Although Canada has become a major market for non-essential leisure products, Canadians are far from being predictable consumers. Richard Pollay, a professor of marketing in the commerce department of the University of British Columbia, said that there are at least two distinct groups of consumers: the technophiles, who eagerly embrace new products, and the technophobes, who are fearful of strange new devices and wait until they become easier to use. “With every product line, there are the pioneers who are willing to take risks and be the first to spend their money, sometimes to gain status with their social crowd,” said Pollay. “But you pay dearly to be a pioneer, and may end up looking foolish, because prices always come down.”

Gender also influences purchases of sophisticated products, according to several experts. Paul Rutherford, a University of Toronto history professor who specializes in the study of popular culture, said that men tend to be more interested in high-technology toys than women, and are more likely to buy the latest model of a product with all the accompanying state-of-the-art, leading-edge trappings. According to some experts, men may find high-tech toys attractive because they fulfil a psychological desire to manipulate and control their environment. Rutherford said that men may derive pleasure from mastering the skills required to operate home computers, computer games and VCRs. “They have an enormous attractiveness for men,” said Rutherford. “Mastering them can prove a man’s skill and gives him a sense of control over something complex.”

Similarly, men are more likely to be audiophiles. Alan Lofft, editor of the Toronto-based magazine Sound & Vision, said that there are usually two types of buyers for innovative, new sound equipment: those who are fascinated by the technology itself, and those who are interested in the quality of the music they hear. “These people want things to be perfect,” said Lofft. “It becomes an endless quest for better and better equipment. It’s almost exclusively a male phenomenon.”

The availability of leisure time can also have a major influence in the purchase of recreational products. And Rutherford claims that men traditionally have had more free time than women. Many men could divide their lives between work and play, while women have had to juggle work, home and recreation. “Play gets lost a bit in the lives of women because of domestic duties,” he said. “They find it considerably more difficult to indulge themselves, especially when they’re on call 24 hours a day to look after the kids.”

But in an era when increasing numbers of women are working fulltime and wielding more financial clout, designers, manufacturers and retailers are tailoring products to suit women’s needs and tastes. Jason

Vines, a public relations manager with Detroit-based Chrysler Corp., said that the latest model of the Jeep Grand Cherokee, one of the Jeep division’s four-wheel-drive sport utility vehicles, has “more female influence than any Jeep vehicle in history.” In one adjustment, designers have altered the step up to the doors, and the doors themselves, to make it easier for women in dresses to get in and out of the vehicle. Jeep products, which were originally designed for military use or rugged outdoors driving, are now being marketed for women, as well as men, who are looking for safe, reliable family transportation. Vines added that for the past five years Chrysler, like other carmakers, has routed new designs through a women’s committee comprised of about 30 female employees from different departments. The committee’s job is to recommend changes that would appeal to women.

Women are also beginning to influence the stereo market, traditionally male-dominated. Michelle Constantin, the only woman on the 21member sales staff at Bay Bloor Radio, a major downtown Toronto retailer, said that men and women frequently view stereo equipment from markedly different perspectives. She said that while men are primarily concerned with volume and sound quality, women look at the size and color of the equipment to ensure that it matches the decor of their homes. Constantin said that she now sees far more men consulting their wives or female companions before purchasing sound systems than when she started in sales six years ago. “In this type of store, the customers used to be primarily men,” she said. “Now, before a man drops three grand on a stereo, he checks with his wife, probably because she’s earning as much as he is.” As the roles of sexes evolve, women are clearly gaining influence as consumers of the high-tech toys that round out peoples’ lives.



ver since the rugged Jeep proved itself during the Second World War, four-wheel-drive vehicles have grown steadily in popularity in North America. First, full-size models such as the Jeep Cherokee and the British Land Rover dominated the market for off-road vehicles, which are capable of operating over rough natural terrain. In recent years, smaller vehicles, including the Suzuki Sidekick and

the Geo Tracker (above), have won a growing following among young adults. The Tracker, introduced in 1989, now comes in models that include twoand four-wheel drive and convertible and hardtops. They range in price from $11,745 to $13,395. Officials of Oshawa, Ont.-based General Motors of Canada, which manufactures the Tracker, say that a typical purchaser is under 35, has a white-collar

job and an above-average family income. And 40 per cent of Tracker buyers are women. Barry Kuntz, a public relations official at General Motors, said that many women like to personalize their Trackers by using packages of vinyl decorating stripes that the company sells. Added Kuntz: “It’s a very sporty vehicle that comes in bright colors. It’s designed for youthful customers.”


Golf club maker Callaway Golf Co. of Carlsbad, Calif., introduced an innovative new driver last year, with a head that is 25 per cent larger than a conventional club’s. Company engineers said that the extra-large head of the club, called the Big Bertha (upper in photo), helps to straighten out shots hit off the toe and heel of the club, while its light weight and stainless steel composition help to propel balls farther. Many golfers found those claims to be true, and equipment retailers across Canada say that they are having trouble keeping the clubs in stock. The Big Bertha sells for about $300, and with a boron-graphite shaft for about $400.


The recorded voice of the Invisibeam alarm system speaks commandingly: “Step back,” it says. “You’re too close to the car.” As automobiles increase in price and diversity, so too do the means of protecting them. The Invisibeam sets up an adjustable microwave field up to four feet deep around a vehicle. Movement in the field sets off that first warning. If movement continues, the unit cautions: “Step back or alarm will sound.” And if the intrusion does not end, it declares a “perimeter violation” and counts down from five to one before announcing, “I’ve been tampered with” and sounding an alarm. But if the intruder withdraws, the alarm politely says, “thank you.” The Invisibeam is used mainly to protect special cars, open convertibles or custom paint jobs. The manufacturer, Electronic Security Products of California Inc. of Canoga Park, Calif., says that wind, leaves and temperature changes will not trigger its sensors. It has no comment about the alarm’s attitude towards officers bearing parking tickets. Price, including installation: $450 to $500.


Waterborne equivalents of the snowmobile, they are becoming a common sight on Canada’s lakes and rivers—to the annoyance of many vacationers and local residents who say that the swift little vehicles are too noisy and dangerous. The first Personal Water Vehicles turned up during the late 1960s, then disappeared when sales were disappointing. Reintroduced five years ago, they began to catch on. Now, larger twoand threeseat models are growing in popularity. The absence of external propellers (they are driven by

jets of water forced out the back) make them ideal for use in shallow water as well as in deeper levels. Despite the limitation of the vehicles’ size, some owners are now taking them on long cruises with overnight trips. As well, police forces are taking advantage of the small machines’ versatility to patrol lakes and rivers. A top-of-the-line Canadian model, Bombardier’s GTX SeaDoo (above), a three-seater with a top speed of about 40 m.p.h., sells for as much as $7,600. Other models range in price from $5,900 to $6,700.


Yamaha, Honda, Kawasaki and Suzuki all manufacture versions of aerodynamically sculpted motorcyles, with engines ranging in size from 600 to 1,100 cc and achieving top speeds in excess of 240 km/h. The powerful machines, sometimes called superbikes, are popular among affluent young males as an exhilarating means of transportation. Standard in the class is the Suzuki GSXR750(left), which is powered by a 749-cc, four-cylinder, 16-valve, water-cooled engine that produces more than 100 horsepower for a machine with a dry weight of only 463 lb. Cost: $8,500.


For the weekend sailor or the recreational boater, the Global Positioning System, incorporated into a device called the Ensign GPS, is perhaps the ultimate gadget. The hand-held Ensign analyses signals from the U.S. Defence Department’s 17 Navstar satellites to give mariners their exact position in latitude and longitude. It can also tell navigators how fast they are going, how far off course they are, how far they have to go to reach their destination and what time it is. And it gives an altitude reading, making it a useful device for mountain climbers. Manufactured by Trimble Navigation Ltd. of Sunnyvale, Calif., the Ensign weighs just under a pound and sells for about $1,500.