TIME Gadgets

Hands On: Ollie Is an Acrobatic Mini-Robot Designed for Speed

Sphero

A spry toy that's three times faster than Sphero

A little over a year ago, my former colleague Harry McCracken wrote about Sphero, a nimble robotic orb you could bowl around a room like a remote-controlled plastic baseball using a smartphone or tablet.

Colorado-based Sphero (nee Orbotix), the futuristic gizmo-maker that came up with the eponymous Sphero robotic ball, is about to release its next big thing: another remote-controlled robot-toy, only one designed to zip around play-spaces three times faster.

You wouldn’t guess as much looking at it. Take one of those miniature soda cans you sometimes get on airplanes, paint it white and turn it on its side, then strap a pair of rubber rings around the ends like caterpillar track (the obvious analogy being something tank-like, and no one’s ever described a tank as “fleet”). Instead of aluminum, make the frame polycarbonate (a type of highly durable plastic), and instead of carbonated liquid, fill it with the gyroscopic innards of a gymnastic robot.

Do all that (and stylize the sides with a stack of tiny LED rectangles, and paint the tread deep sky blue) and you wind up with something that’s a little less versatile and elementally durable than Sphero, but a whole lot faster.

Sphero calls it Ollie, like the trick you can do with a skateboard or snowboard where you jump into the air without ramping off something else. Ollie can pull off ollies, do a quick spin in place, spin in place indefinitely, speed boost while driving (called “grabs”), jump around like a hot potato, pull off wheelies, or rocket across the room and turn on a dime before zipping off in a new direction. Ollie is available today for iOS and Android devices from gosphero.com for $99, with plans to sell the toy in stores starting September 15.

I’ve been playing with Ollie for about a week, putting the tubular robot through its paces in a largish room with a wood floor and a few plush rugs (both of which it navigated with ease). Unlike Sphero, which came with an inductive charging base, you have to plug Ollie into a USB outlet to charge, and its built-in battery takes about three hours to fill while returning about an hour of playtime. It’s a snap to turn on or off: just tap your mobile device (running the control app) against the toy and it connects, illuminating Ollie’s LED rectangles. You turn Ollie off by closing the app.

There’s some minor assembly required, but it’s pretty basic. Out of the box you get Ollie itself, a pair of optional “hubcaps” and two rubber “tires.” Ollie works with or without the tires (drifting’s easier with them off, hitting top speeds is easier with them on), and like Sphero, the company plans to sell a line of upgrades starting at $10 each, most of them tire-related and designed to let you tweak whether your Ollie is grip- or speed-oriented. Sphero sent along a small ramp made by Tech Deck, though it looks like the one the company is planning to sell as an official accessory–something called “Terrain Park” with ramps at either end of connector rails–is a totally different product.

Also like Sphero, Ollie seems like a product that–as Harry said of the former in his hands-on–“runs the risk of being something you love for half an afternoon and then stick in the back of a drawer forever.” I’d say it’s even more of a risk with Ollie. Though it can travel a lot faster than Sphero (up to 14 m.p.h. versus Sphero’s comparably poky 4.5 m.p.h.), it ships with just a handful of activities compared with Sphero’s 30-plus.

Once you exhaust Ollie’s velocity-related possibilities over the course of that half-afternoon (one of those possibilities including, in my case, unintentionally freaking out our Sheltie), you’re left with the tricks, which you access through a free control app pulled down from Apple’s App Store or Google Play. The app’s also where you can fiddle sliders to set top speed, finesse handling and acceleration, or optimize for hard or soft surfaces.

Sphero

In Sphero’s case, the control app included a slew of augmented reality exercises, games and programmable macros. In Ollie’s case, all you get are some light gymnastics: a few spins and mundane tricks. Flip the phone sideways and the interface shifts from a virtual motion control joystick to a square grid beside the virtual joystick that lets you swipe to trigger a few trick maneuvers, rewarding deftly executed ones with little messages like “sick spin” or “intergalactic steam roll bit flip.” But we’re talking a handful. Put Ollie in the hands of a child creatively laying down makeshift obstacles and the possibilities grow, but out of the box, Ollie feels even more niche than Sphero.

Speaking of kids, Ollie seems pretty durable for a toy that, unlike Sphero, has exposed moving parts. My two-year-old had no compunctions about chasing Ollie down, snatching it up, then giving it an emphatic toss (Ollie didn’t seem to mind). While I’m pretty sure Ollie’s not meant to be an aerial projectile, I can vouch for the toy’s ability to survive several drops from heights of about two feet onto a hardwood floor without breaking or malfunctioning. (I can’t say the same for the floor, which picked up a few dings in the process.) Also, if you’re thinking about using Ollie outside, be aware that where the company bills Sphero as waterproof as well as “pet-proof,” Sphero quips that Ollie “outruns pets and hates water.”

Questions of demographic appeal aside, I do have a minor quibble with the control scheme. Sphero’s app turns your mobile device’s touchscreen into a kind of pancaked joystick. Ollie gleans directional and velocity input using Bluetooth based on where your thumb or fingers are in relation to a central point on the screen. The good news is that the connection operates lag-free, and Ollie responded to my swipes instantaneously–up to the stated connection range of 30 meters (just under 100 feet).

Sphero

But the app shares some of the downsides of touchscreen-based control schemes that attempt (and generally fail) to give you precision control of three dimensions using only two. If you’ve played tablet or smartphone ports of 3D games made for actual 3D gamepads, you know what I’m talking about: a tendency to lose your place in the touch area when things get frantic, since there’s nothing to physically limit or “bound” your fingers on a touchscreen.

In Ollie’s case, the problem manifests less as directional control–it’s easy enough to gauge whether your thumb’s at three- or nine-o-clock without looking down at the screen–than picking the toy’s velocity. Since Ollie can move at such high speeds, you have to make course corrections far more often. So your eyes have to be on Ollie all the time, making it easy to lose your place in the app’s radius-related speed controls.

Don’t get me wrong: I like Ollie well enough, and my two-year-old now routinely asks for it by name. I can also imagine an older child coming up with some pretty sophisticated play scenarios, say devising a makeshift obstacle course using ordinary household objects or toys and working hand-eye coordination skills as well as design ones. I just wish Sphero could have come up with more for the toy to do out of the box on the app side.

The company says it’s planning to release a few more apps down the road, including one that’ll let you draw paths on the touchscreen that Ollie follows as well as others that’ll let programmers goof around. But I can’t speak to those because they aren’t yet available.

Getting Ollie racing along at top speeds certainly has its satisfactions (exhausting an energetic toddler being one of them), but Ollie needs more in its arsenal to make it, like Sphero, about more than the novelty of remote-controlling a movable toy with your mobile device.

MONEY Toys

Lego Is Now The Largest Toy Company In The World

After the success of 'The Lego Movie,' the company plans to double down on using motion pictures to drive sales.

After stacking on another six months of rapid growth, Lego is now the largest toy company on the planet.

The Danish block-maker on Thursday announced that revenues increased 11% in the first half of 2014. Total sales hit $2.03 billion, narrowly beating out Mattel’s $2 billion in revenue over the same period.

As the Wall Street Journal reports, Mattel missed expectations earlier this year as interest in its flagship Barbie doll waned. In contrast, Lego earnings have soared on the strength of products related to its wildly popular movie. The film, released in February, received rave reviews and spurred new interest in the company’s products.

In a press release announcing earnings, Lego CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp said he wasn’t sure how long the movie’s line of toys will continue their momentum. But, as the Journal points out, the company has doubled down on using motion pictures to drive sales. A movie based on Lego’s Ninjago line of ninja-themed toys is planned for 2015, and The Lego Movie 2 is scheduled for a 2017 release.

While success at the box office has surely helped spur Lego sales, the block-maker’s earnings should come as no surprise considering its other recent victories.

As MONEY’s Brad Tuttle previously reported, Lego is experiencing strong growth in China, and Knudstorp is on record as predicting his company would quadruple its revenue in less than a decade. This comes during a time when competitors like Mattel have struggled to keep up sales. Even Lego Friends, a girl-focused line of toys that was widely panned for promoting stereotypes, has been a smash hit, with sales to girls tripling in the wake of its release.

Looking forward, Lego plans to continue its growth by turning multicolored building blocks into a global icon. “We have been investing and we will continue to invest significant resources in further globalising the company,” said Knudstorp. “Ultimately this is what will ensure the future success of the Lego Group.”

TIME Tablets

This Enormous Tablet Could Replace Your Kid’s TV

Fuhu's Big Tab tablet boasts a screen as large as 24 inches. Fuhu

The Big Tab is aiming to replace video game consoles and TVs for kids' entertainment

Family game night is going digital — a new super-sized tablet for kids is aiming to replace the classic board game, the Xbox and maybe even the television.

The Big Tab, developed by fast-growing startup Fuhu, boasts a massive screen of either 20 or 24 inches, depending on the model. That’s a big jump from the company’s popular Nabi 2 tablet, which has a seven-inch screen. But Fuhu founder Robb Fujioka says the big screen size will encourage children to collaborate and socialize when they use their device, rather than tuning out the rest of the world.

To make the tablet into a social hub, Fuhu has developed a large suite of multiplayer games, from classics like checkers and Candyland to internally developed titles. A feature called “Story Time” offers 35 interactive e-books that utilize animated illustrations. Kids can also utilize video editing software, a Pandora-like radio service and educational software.

There are also tools for adults on the Android-powered device. A separate Parent Mode allows adults to download apps from the Google Play or Amazon stores. Parents can also set limits on which apps their children can access and for how long they can use them. Like Fuhu’s other devices, the Big Tab also boasts a virtual currency system that lets parents pay their kids when they complete chores or use educational apps for a certain amount of time.

The device, which also lets parents track their kids’ usage patterns, could appeal to adults looking to guide their children toward more productive forms of entertainment. Fujioka says he replaced the television in one of his children’s rooms with the Big Tab and uses it to keep track of whether his kid is playing educational games or watching Netflix. “It’s not just a boob tube,” he says. “It’s an interactive device.”

Though the tablet market is only a few years old, the devices have been embraced by parents in a big way. Tablet usage among children between ages two and 12 increased from 38% to 48% over the last year, according to research firm NPD. Juli Lennett, head of the toys division at NPD, said it’s a combination of safety, durability and kid appeal that has led to the quick popularity of children’s tablets. “When the price point is $99, on top of being a real functional tablet, these additional features are tough to beat,” Lennett told TIME via email.

The challenge for Fujioka and Fuhu will be convincing parents to pony up for a high-end tablet. The Big Tab will cost $449 for the 20-inch model and $549 for the 24-inch when it launches this fall, far more than the $180 the Nabi 2 goes for. And while the larger size means the Big Tab can be used by multiple people at once, it also makes the device less portable than its smaller cousins, eliminating one of the original selling points of the tablet form factor. “The beauty of these tablets is you throw them in your bag and you go,” says Gerrick Johnson, an equity research analyst at BMO Capital Markets who follows the toy industry. “A [24-inch] tablet becomes a little more difficult.”

Still, Fuhu is well positioned to prove skeptics wrong. The company sold 1.5 million of its normal-sized kids’ tablets in 2013, says Fujioka. This year, Fuhu is leading the children’s tablet market in the U.S., according to NPD, beating out competitors like Samsung and KD interactive. The question now is whether others will follow their lead in developing kids’ devices that cost as much as an iPad or a video game console.

“We think there’s a big market out there,” Fujioka says. “We believe we’re defining a new category of tablet products for the family.”

TIME Video Games

Skylanders Series Finally Heads to Its Logical Home: Tablets

Activision

Activision's toy-game franchise is finally coming to tablets, and not a watered-down spinoff, but the full console experience (and then some).

Toys — speaking as a child informed by the 1980s’ halcyon infusion of Masters of the Universe, G.I. Joe and Transformers — are things you want to play with using your hands, not virtual appendages. You want to feel their heft, to pick them up and set them down, to put fingers to their plastic contours and movable joints and smooth or spiny textures before positioning them along imaginary compounds and battlements.

Activision’s Skylanders series celebrates the physicality of toys by folding that experience into a virtual one and back again. But until now, you’ve always had the virtual part of the experience with a television screen, probably up off the floor and away from the toys themselves. The toys were the physical experience you had to carry to the virtual one.

Activision’s finally remedying that by inverting the formula and bringing the virtual experience to the physical one: Skylanders Trap Team, the newest installment in the series that lets players “trap” characters from the game in physical objects, will be the first to support tablets, and it’ll launch simultaneously with the console versions when they ship on October 5.

It’s not a scaled-down version, either, but the full Trap Team experience you’ll have with any of the console versions, soup to nuts. What’s more, and this is where the notion of a table version starts to get interesting, Activision’s engineered its own Bluetooth gamepad. Imagine an Xbox 360 controller with all the trimmings, including dual analog thumbsticks, d-pad, face buttons and triggers, only one that’s slightly smaller (designed for the game’s younger target demographic).

It’s available as part of something the team calls the Skylanders Trap Team Tablet Starter Pack, which includes a Bluetooth version of the Traptanium Portal (the plastic stand you set the Skylanders action figures on, as well as the traps) and the gamepad itself, which rests under the platform in a formfitting cubby hole.

The starter pack includes the controller, the built-in tablet stand (it’s part of the platform, so “included” may be overselling this point) and a display tray that lets you track the traps and villains you’ve collected. Activision told me all 175 existing Skylanders toys are compatible with the platform, and that’s in addition to Trap Team‘s over 50 new playable Skylanders heroes and 40 new villains.

The tablet docks directly to the portal, tilting backward slightly, nestling in a crook-like stand (built into the portal) designed to grab and hold it without mechanical latches. That’s so you can pull the tablet out or drop it back in with ease. Watching Activision demo the new interface, it looks like coming home, like a game that’s finally found the interface it was designed for.

How much? You’ll need a tablet, of course, but assuming you have one that’s compatible — Activision supports the 3rd gen iPad forward, the Kindle Fire HDX, the Google Nexus 7 and the Samsung Galaxy Tab and Note — you can lay hands on the starter pack for $74.99, same as console.

TIME Opinion

Disney’s Perfect Answer to Barbie Is Doc McStuffins

'Time for Your Checkup' Doc McStuffins Doll with Lambie Disney Junior

The African-American doctor doll leads the way in science toys for girls

Who would have thought that Disney, the company that made its name with a parade of Caucasian princesses whose waists are smaller than their eyes, would set the record for the best-selling toy line based on an African-American character — and that this particular doll also happens to be a girl who’s interested in science? But it’s true. Merchandise based on the Disney Junior TV character Dottie “Doc” McStuffins, a young girl who plays doctor with her stuffed animals, grossed around $500 million last year.

Doc McStuffins is a miracle not only because she’s one of the few popular black dolls on the market but because she also has inspired all sorts of young girls to don stethoscopes during playtime. In an era when toy stores are divided ever more strictly into blue aisles for boys and pink aisles for girls, most of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) toys have ended up in the blue aisle. Girls, on the other hand, are stuck with chemistry kits to create their own makeup.

This may have had an impact on girls’ desire to enter the STEM fields and on the number of female engineers in the U.S. A 2009 poll of children ages 8 to 17 by the American Society for Quality found that 24% of boys say they are interested in a career in engineering while only 5% of girls are. “Wanting to be a doctor or architect or cook, that really begins when you’re young and walking around with a stethoscope or playing with an Easy Bake oven,” says Richard Gottlieb, CEO of toy-industry consulting firm Global Toy Experts, told TIME in November. No STEM toys for girls means fewer grown-up female scientists.

As parents have begun to complain about the dearth of science toys for girls, old companies and startups alike have responded with varying degrees of success. Buoyed by a viral ad campaign, GoldieBlox, an engineering toy designed for young girls, flew off the toy shelves last Christmas. The building blocks and accompanying storybook starring a blonde girl named Goldie aimed to make engineering more appealing and accessible to girls raised on boy TV characters like Jimmy Neutron and Dexter from Dexter’s Laboratory with off-the-charts IQs.

Meanwhile, Lego came out with a girls-only line of toys called Lego Friends after finding in 2011 that 90% of its consumers were boys and men. Seeing an untapped market, they created an entire universe called Heartlake, featuring teen girls who wear a lot of pink and work in pet salons. But thankfully one of the characters also has an invention workshop. The Danish manufacturer has also recently issued a line of female-scientist Legos in response to feminist complaints about Lego Friends.

And then there’s Barbie. Despite Mattel’s renewed efforts to tell girls they can “be anything” — dress her in an astronaut suit, business attire or a bikini — Barbie still has an impossible figure, feet designed for high heels only and platinum blonde hair. Girls think about looks, not occupation, when playing with Barbie. So it’s not all that surprising that studies have found that Doctor Barbie doesn’t make girls want to be doctors: girls ages 4 to 7 were more likely to identify ambitious occupations as “boys only” after playing with a Doctor Barbie doll for 10 minutes than they were after playing with Mrs. Potato Head for the same amount of time.

Which is why girls so desperately need toys like those from Doc McStuffins. The show features not only 7-year-old Dottie but also her doctor mom and her stay-at-home-dad and has been endorsed by organizations like the Artemis Medical Society, which supports physicians of color. Anecdotally, the No. 1 rated show among kids ages 2 to 5 is already having an effect: a recent New York Times article on the doll included interviews with little girls who are wearing lab coats to school.

It helps that Dottie isn’t just dressing up as a doctor — like Barbie — but is actually mimicking her mom and treating her toys. You can’t be what you can’t see, which is why Doc McStuffins’ (and Goldie Blox’s and the Lego Friends characters’) actions matter more than their outfits.

TIME Toys

LEGO Adds New Female Scientist Toys After Fans Demand Them

LEGO Female Scientists
LEGO Female Scientists LEGO

Perfect for the tiny, aspiring astronomers, paleontologists and chemists in your life

Young girls interested in science finally have some encouragement from LEGO.

The toy company is selling a new kit, the Research Institute, which features women in various STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) jobs: a paleontologist, an astronomer and a chemist.

According to LEGO, the set was conceived by geoscientist Ellen Kooijman as a part of the LEGO Ideas series, sets that “are based on fans’ ideas voted up by the community, and have been chosen for release.”

As i09 notes, the addition comes a few months after a letter from a 7-year-old girl complaining about the opportunities for female figurines went viral.

“All the [LEGO] girls did was sit at home, go to the beach, and shop, and they had no jobs,” Charlotte wrote, “but the boys went on adventures, worked, saved people, and had jobs, even swam with sharks.”

Unfortunately for Charlotte, there are no sharks at the Research Institute, but there are dinosaur fossils, which are just as cool.

TIME Retail

Here’s Why Barbie Is Having a Pretty Rough Month

The Biggest Barbie Collection Auctioned At Christies
Chris Jackson—Getty Images

World’s largest toy maker posts 61% drop in second-quarter profit as demand also falls for Fisher-Price and Hot Wheels brands

fortunelogo-blue
This post is in partnership with Fortune, which offers the latest business and finance news. Read the article below originally published atFortune.com.

Mattel’s iconic Barbie doll joined the popular social-network site LinkedIn this year and even appeared in a Sports Illustrated campaign, but both marketing ploys weren’t enough to drive sales in the latest quarter.

The world’s largest toy maker posted a sharp 61% drop in second-quarter profit as Barbie posted another sales decline and demand also fell for the well-established Fisher-Price and Hot Wheels brands. Results badly missed Wall Street’s expectations for the quarter, hurt by sales weakness across almost all categories.

But the sales woes for Barbie, which have plagued Mattel MAT -0.71% the past few years, are especially problematic. Barbie’s global sales slumped 15% in the latest quarter.

Worldwide sales of Mattel’s preschool Fisher-Price brands slid 17%, while Hot Wheels sales dropped 2%. The pricier American Girl doll segment was the lone bright spot, with sales rising 6%.

For the rest of the story, go to Fortune.com.

TIME Toys

Your Barbie Can Now Slay in a Suit of Medieval Armor

Dungeons and Dragons and Barbie?

Barbie has plenty of pantsuits and party dresses, but her closet is still missing the one outfit she never knew she needed: A suit of armor. And even better, it’s not pink. Designer Jim Rodda launched a Kickstarter in April to fund a 3D-printed design of a medieval armor suit that’s specifically made for Barbie.

Rodda, who isn’t affiliated with Mattel, wants to make Barbie powerful by outfitting her with intricate battle suits and weapons in his new “Faire Play” battle set. Rodda designs and sells the 3D blueprints, so customers can print the Barbie armor on their own 3D printers. Fans are given the option to buy three different types of outfits: A robe with swords and a Barbie medusa-faced shield; a highly adorned gold suit; and a silver suit of armor.

Rodda says the idea came to him when he was coming up with a birthday gift for his niece. “Back when I started this, my niece was obsessed with My Little Pony,” says Rodda. “So I wanted to make My Little Pony compatible glitter cannons.”

Rodda struggled to 3D print a spring for the cannons, so he turned to the next logical thing in the “little girl toy market:” Barbie. The “Faire Play” battle set is a result of the successful $6,000 Kickstarter campaign that closed with 290 backers. “They are the ones who have actually made this thing possible,” Rodda says.

Barbie may have shown her strength in 1965 when she went through astronaut training, Rodda points out, or her business chops with Entrepreneur Barbie, but he thinks the popular doll is stuck in the past.

“The fashion-obsessed part of Barbie’s personality pervades the collective consciousness,” says the designer. “I think Entrepreneur Barbie’s a step in the right direction, but ‘Babs’ is still carrying a lot of cultural baggage from the last 25 years. People are still bringing up 1992’s ‘Math class is tough!’ debacle, even though Mattel released Computer Engineer Barbie in 2010 and Mars Explorer Barbie in 2013.”

The designer hopes his “Faire Play” set will help young girls learn about 3D printing and foster their interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). “Maybe she grows up to be the one that invents the solution to climate change, or helps get humans to Mars,” Rodda says, “or becomes the nest Neil deGrasse Tyson and evangelizes a love of science for another generation.”

Collectors and 3D-printing enthusiasts alike stand among the ranks of customers eager to see the warrior Barbie, says Rodda. Even Rodda’s daughter, who was, “never a Barbie kid,” is helping design the armor suits.

“If there’s a lesson I’d like my daughter to learn from this phase in Barbie’s career,” says Rodda, “It’s that girls can grow up to do anything.”

Blueprints for the “Faire Play” battle set are available for $29.99 along with other 3D-printed fun..

TIME Toys

You’ll Never Believe How Many Lightsabers Disney Sells Every Year

Star Wars Fans Train As Jedis In Lightsaber Class In San Francisco
Students perform combat moves using lightsabers during a Golden Gate Knights class in saber choreography on February 24, 2013 in San Francisco. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

An elegant weapon for a more civilized age

Even though the next Star Wars film is still more than a year away, Disney is already reaping some healthy rewards from its $4 billion purchase of Lucasfilm: The media giant told Variety that it now sells 10 million lightsabers per year.

The multi-colored energy swords, a staple of the Star Wars universe, are sold as tiny keychains and as high-end full-size collectibles.

Expect to see more lightsabers out in the wild as Disney begins flooding the market with more Star Wars content. In addition to the upcoming film trilogy, the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars was recently revived on Netflix, a new cartoon series called Star Wars: Rebels is slated to launch on cable later this year and the action game Star Wars: Battlefront is currently in development for the Xbox One, PS4 and PC.

Star Wars merchandise helped Disney boost its overall retail sales to $40.9 billion in 2013, up from $39.4 billion the previous year.

TIME Culture

The Female Superhero May Finally Take Flight

I Am Elemental action figures I Am Elemental

A successful Kickstarter campaign for female action figures and action movies starring women promise a future where girls can kick butt too

G.I. Joe was built to be a hero. His body is engineered for action, not posing. So imagine if certain parts of his anatomy were so large that he fell over. How would he get any world saving done? That’s not a question that anyone seems to be asking about action figures modeled after Wonder Woman.

Why do these heroines look a lot more like Victoria’s Secret models than strong women capable of rescuing civilization (or at least bending their limbs)? Dawn Nadeau, co-founder of I Am Elemental, a new toy company for girls explains it like this: “The few female action figures that are on the market are really designed for the adult male collector. The form is hyper-sexualized: The breasts are oversized; the waist is tiny. When you make the figures sit, their legs splay open in a suggestive way.”

What was missing, Nadeua and her co-founder Julie Kerwin realized, were female action-figures who looked as athletic, powerful and flexible as the male-oriented toys like G.I. Joe and Captain America do. Thanks to overwhelming support from a KickStarter campaign — the company reached its $35,000 goal in the first 48 hours after launching in May and eventually went on to raise almost $163,000 from supporters in all 50 states and six continents — I Am Elemental‘s first group of action figures will hit toy stores this holiday season.

The toys come at a time when female superheroes are starting to invade the zeitgeist but still play second fiddle to men, as with Jennifer Lawrence in X-Men: Days of Future Past or Scarlett Johansson in The Avengers. Most toys are byproducts of what’s onscreen and are a large part of their profit: Last year, the success of the Hunger Games franchise inspired a set of purple and pink Nerf guns and crossbows for girls called Nerf Rebelle. But the swell of financial support for I Am Elemental proves that there is a demand for more strong heroines in both toy stories and our culture.

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Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique in X-Men: Days of Future Past. Alan Markfield—TM and © 2013 Marvel and Subs. TM and © 2013 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

What’s different about the I Am Elemental action figures is that they don’t look anything like Barbie or, for that matter, Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique in X-Men, whose entire costume consists of blue body paint. The creators spent months perfecting the action figures’ measurements to make them as realistic, athletic and as non-sexualized as possible. “We were obsessed with the breast-to-hip ratio,” says Nadeau. “We were obsessed with the bum because so many of these figures have these incredible butt cracks on the back. We kept saying ‘Bridge the gap.” The result is a figure that’s decidedly feminine but could still leap into battle.

There are several action figures in the I Am Elemental sets. Each has a theme inspired by a historical muse (the first, based on Joan of Arc, is “courage”). And each figure in that set personifies a virtue and possess a power: For example, Persistence has the ability to push through any obstacle with super-strength.

Though all the characters are women, Nadeau says they hope the action figures can have a place in boys’ toy boxes too. “If you don’t over-qualify it and just say here’s a great toy play with it, the kids will be off and running. I don’t think everything needs to be gender specified,” she says. “I’d like to see them in the girl aisle and the boys aisle, next to Barbie and next to the Transformers. They should be in boys’ toy boxes too because 50% of the human population is female, and shouldn’t women be part of story lines that boys are creating?”

What toys girls play with when they are young affects how they perceive themselves and what they can accomplish later in life. In a recent study published in the Journal of Sex Roles, researchers asked one group of girls play with large-breasted, thin-waisted Barbie dolls and another group play with ambiguously shaped Mrs. Potato Head dolls. Upon interviewing the girls after they played, the scientists found that girls who played with Barbie believed they had far fewer career choices than those who played with Mrs. Potato Head. That was true even when Barbie was dressed up like a doctor.

It makes a compelling argument for giving girls tools to envision themselves as heroes. “Children feel so powerless, and that’s why they play. And the idea that you could be the person who could save the world is a very powerful story line and fantasy to have,” says Nadeau.

MCDAVEN EC005
Scarlett Johansson in The Avengers Walt Disney Co.

But no matter how popular I Am Elemental gets, it will never be as big as Marvel. The most popular action figures are based on blockbuster films, and Hollywood has been slow to correct the gender imbalance in summer blockbusters. Despite the success of films like The Hunger Games, Maleficent and Kill Bill — all of which feature powerful female protagonists — studios consider female-driven successes to be flukes rather than a formula for success: Recent studies found that women made up only 15% of protagonists and 30% of all speaking roles in the top 100 grossing films of 2013.

There have been plenty of women sidekicks on the big screen: Anne Hathaway as Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises; Halle Berry, Jennifer Lawrence and Ellen Page as X-Men in the X-Men films; Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in The Avengers; and even Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts saved Tony Stark in Iron Man 3. But all of these women take a backseat to their more powerful, quippier and more heroic male counterparts. After all, these franchises aren’t named after the female characters.

Avengers director Joss Whedon, who tried and failed to bring a Wonder Woman film to the big screen in 2007, has expressed his frustration with the lack of female superheroes before. “Toymakers will tell you they won’t sell enough, and movie people will point to the two terrible superheroine movies that were made and say, You see? It can’t be done. It’s stupid, and I’m hoping The Hunger Games will lead to a paradigm shift,” he told Newsweek in 2013.

And even the female characters Whedon does get onscreen, like Black Widow, are too lame to attract some actresses. Emily Blunt says she was up for the Black Widow role in Iron Man 2 and the Peggy Carter part in Captain America and turned both down. “Usually the female parts in a superhero film feel thankless: She’s the pill girlfriend while the guys are whizzing around saving the world,” she told Vulture. “I didn’t do the other ones because the part wasn’t very good or the timing wasn’t right, but I’m open to any kind of genre if the part is great and fun and different and a challenge in some way.”

ALL YOU NEED IS KILL
Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow David James—(c) 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.- U.S., Canada, Bahamas & Bermuda (c) 2013 Village Roadshow Films (BVI) Limited- All Oth

Blunt currently stars in Edge of Tomorrow (an action flick featuring Tom Cruise in a Groundhog Day-like battle sequence), in which she cuts an imposing figure as the best soldier on the battlefield. She even mercilessly kills Tom Cruise over and over again every time the two reach a dead-end in their mission and he needs to restart the day. She’s no pill girlfriend but Cruise’s equal — if not superior — in power.

Edge of Tomorrow isn’t the only film that promises a heftier role for women in action movies. At the end of the summer, Scarlett Johansson will play a ruthless warrior in Lucy — the success of which may be a litmus test for whether Marvel feels comfortable green-lighting a Black Widow spin-off. Jennifer Lawrence will star in another Hunger Games film next year, and producers have hinted that she could also headline her own Mystique X-Men film. The original ambassadors of girl power, The Powerpuff Girls, are returning to children’s television in 2016, the Cartoon Network announced Monday. Wonder Woman will wield her golden lasso on the big screen in the 2016 Batman vs. Superman movie, and — if fans get their way — maybe even carry her own franchise.

On Saturday, DC Comics President Diane Nelson promised greater female representation in upcoming movies: “At DC Entertainment, we talk frequently about how we heighten the presence of female storytellers and creators with our comic books — digital and physical. How do we bring the female characters to light more?” she said. “We have more work to do. But I think if we talk again in a couple of years, you’ll be pleased with the results.”

Maybe then they’ll make a Wonder Woman action figure with a normal hip-to-waist ratio.

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