Mego Toys president Bruce Katz explains the story behind 2XL, the AI chat-powered interactive robot designed for children.  Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

With a history of toy design that includes the production of some of the first licensed action figures, toy maker Mego Corp. of Great Neck  hopes to jump into the future by introducing  an interactive robot powered by artificial intelligence.

Long Island toy designer Marty Abrams, 80, owner and chairman of Mego, said his company’s forthcoming 2XL Cobot — collaborative robot — marks a major step for the company, historically known for introducing 8-inch posable action figures of licensed characters such as Batman and Superman into the toy market in the early 1970s.

The new robot, set to hit retailers globally next year, is the product of a partnership with California-based technology and A.I. firm D1srupt1ve Inc. The toy will be released  through a separate brand called Mego2. The 2XL Cobot will retail for $150 to $200, company officials said.

“You ask it questions and it answers,” Abrams said. “It speaks 40 different languages. It doesn’t make a difference if it’s Hindi or Portuguese.”

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Great Neck toy manufacturer Mego Corp. will release an interactive 2XL Cobot toy next year.
  • The A.I.-powered conversational robot will retail for $150 to $200.
  • Mego projects sales to reach more than $80 million globally.

But 2XL, which relies on the evolving capabilities of A.I., is a throwback to a toy of the same name Mego released in 1978, Abrams said — though at the time, the interactive talking robot relied on eight-track audiotape cartridges rather than Wi-Fi  and cloud storage.

“When you have these ideas, they’re epiphanies; they metastasize in your brain,” he said of the new product. “I could have named this thing anything. I go back to 2XL because it allows someone to know the roots of where it came from.”

Founded in 1954 as an importer of toys by Abrams' parents, the company  became a major player in the world of collectibles.

Mego, credited as the first company to license superhero characters for action figures in the early 1970s, according to the History of Dolls website, manufactures its signature products with costumes made of fabric as opposed to plastic molded clothing.

At its peak, the company had about 4,000 employees, mostly in Hong Kong factories, and was producing more action figures than Hasbro, Abrams said. But in 1982, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

In 2018, retail giant Target approached Abrams about reviving the Mego brand for an exclusive rerelease of collectible figures.

The offer led to a rebirth of the company, which now has seven employees in Great Neck and expects to see sales this year reach $18 million, according to company president Bruce Katz.

“Normally when a business goes out of business, it’s over,” Abrams said.

The toy business overall has seen shifts in recent years, said Adrienne Appell, executive vice president of marketing communications for the Toy Association, a trade group representing toy makers and distributors.

Not for kids only

For years, she said, toy sales have seen periods of modest growth and decline. During the height of the pandemic, though, sales saw a major uptick as more adults found the “therapeutic benefits of play,” she said.

Retail sales of toys generated $29.2 billion in 2022, a 33% increase compared to 2019 sales, according to The NPD Group's U.S. Retail Tracking Services, which cover roughly 76% of all U.S. toy sales.

“We find that a lot of grownups are purchasing toys for the older adults in their life,” Appell said. “Across the board, people are finding play beneficial. Shoppers are buying them for their peers and for older adults.”

Katz said the company expects its sales, buoyed overwhelmingly by the international release of 2XL, to reach more than $80 million next year.

The Mego toys team, from left: designer Weigang Zhang, head of...

The Mego toys team, from left: designer Weigang Zhang, head of design Paul Clarke, chairman Marty Abrams, CEO Joel Rosenzweig and president Bruce Katz. Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

“We’ve gotten full distribution worldwide on this,” Katz said. “It will be in every country and, of course, all through the United States and Canada.”

While a major advancement for a company known for posable, plastic figures, the use of A.I. in children’s toys gives child psychologist Laurie Zelinger of Cedarhurst some pause.

Zelinger, a credentialed play therapist, said while new technology like A.I. can be used to great effect with kids, it should be monitored.

For its part, Abrams said the company has been diligent in implementing “guardrails” to ensure that conversations with 2XL never become obscene and remain positive and appropriate for the 5-to-12-year-old range to which the robot will be marketed.

“Parents should be comfortable asking themselves whether an interactive toy with human-like conversational abilities is replacing real-person interactions, or whether it is an adjunct to it,” Zelinger said.

“For children with limited interpersonal opportunities, this can be a lifesaver,” she said. “When it becomes their main source of ‘social’ interaction, however, it supplants human contact.”

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