Passing notes used to be complicated. A furtive glance across home room. The quick, deliberate movement that thrusts a folded piece of paper into the hands of another.
Now, thanks to new wireless gadgets aimed at the preteen set, old-fashioned note-passing has gone high tech.
A wave of wireless communications devices aimed at preteens has entered retail stores, allowing children to beam text or voice messages to others carrying similar devices.
The hand-held Laser Chat, for example, beams digital voice messages up to 40 feet, and the digital organizer and diary called Get Mail allows children to exchange "secret" text messages through plastic cards inserted into the device.
Then there's the Cybiko. Think Game Boy meets Palm Pilot, and throw in a little walkie-talkie with a wireless twist. The device allows kids to electronically chat, send e-mail, organize schedules, or play games with other Cybiko users.
"Passing notes is big. We know that -- whether you're passing them electronically, or you're beeping someone, or you're sending a note flying through a spitball," said Allison Druin, a professor at the University of Maryland at College Park who studies the impact of technology on children.
"Among kids, the instant-messaging thing is huge," according to Jeremy Schwartz, a senior analyst with Forrester Research, a technology research firm based in Cambridge, Mass. "Tying into those kinds of things by toy manufacturers is something that I would suspect is going to do quite well."
Many of the devices focus on the preteen, or "tween" market, which can range from 8 or 9 years old through early teen-age years.
"These kids are very tech-savvy. I think most of these kids have grown up with PCs in their homes," Schwartz said. "Most kids, they listen to music while they watch TV, while they surf the Internet. They're doing all these things in parallel."
The devices themselves are no mere toys. They use a variety of technologies available in high-tech products for adults, including infrared technology, digital recording, and high frequency digital transmitters.
Tiger Electronics, a division of the toy manufacturer Hasbro, will debut several wireless communications devices for kids in the next few months.
The company produces Get Mail and plans to release Lightning Mail late this fall.
Children can use Lightning Mail to send e-mail messages by plugging the device into a telephone jack.
The units, expected to cost about $80, also will enable users to wirelessly send messages to other Lightning Mail devices within a 50-foot range.
Toy manufacturers note that they are targeting girls who traditionally haven't always embraced technology.
"Girls have a tendency to shy away a little bit more from technology. Boys seem to get into it a little bit earlier," said Patti Saitow, vice president of marketing for Radica, USA, a Dallas-based company that makes a brand of products called Girl Tech. The line was founded in an effort to make technology fun for girls.
Laser Chat, a Girl Tech gadget, is targeted at girls ages 8 and up. The device, which sells for $14.99 and looks like a sleek, pink-and-silver cell phone with blue buttons, allows users to record a voice message up to 10 seconds long, and then beam the message to another unit.
The digital voice recording is a bit scratchy. Volume can be controlled through a whisper playback mode. Perhaps the product's greatest limitation is that in order to transmit the messages via infrared technology, the two units must be aimed almost exactly in line with each other, with no impediments.
Cybiko, however, uses a high frequency digital transmitter to send messages up to 150 feet indoors and 300 feet outdoors. A self-described wireless "intertainment" system for $129, it comes in translucent purple, yellow, gray and clear.
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