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Valerie Vacante - Connected Cool Kids

What do you do in the industry?

I am the Founder and Managing Partner of Collabsco a strategy and innovation collective based in Austin Texas. We work with global brands and startups to create product innovation solutions for growth. We are Executive Collaborators, Emerging Technology Strategists and Connected Product and Communication leaders. Ultimately, we are problem solvers, we are happiest collaborating with cool people doing cool things to pioneer new products and experiences through emerging tech across toys, games, music, fashion, entertainment and beyond.

What was your favorite toy or game as a child?

There were so many brilliant toys and games - I can’t name a single toy or game; however, there is a common theme in my favorite toys and games - they all game me a sense of wonderment, imagination and a wink to what could be possible.

A few of my favorite toys and games included: the original NES, handheld games like Qbert, Robbie Jr., Lite Bright, Transformers, LEGO, Jem and the Holograms, She-Ra Princess of Power and He-Man, Pocket Rockers, Spin Art, Simon, Speak and Spell, Casio PT-1, Pogo Bal, Care Bears, My Little Pony and Hot Wheels and let’s not forget the board games: Monopoly, The Goonies, Mouse Trap, Wheel of Fortune, Trouble and The Game of Life.

I have fond memories creating, playing and learning through these toys and games; from strategy, entrepreneurship, creativity, friendship, caring and tenacity and technology I’m thankful for all that these toys and games taught me and that’s why I am passionate about creating exciting products and experiences to create positive memories for a new generation.

Why and how did you get into the Toy and Game industry?

It was not part of my original plan, I started my career in the digital marketing world always with consumer, insights and innovation at the core. I made the move to a product innovation firm where our main focus was creating a connected world across smart home, connected fitness, connected transportation and more.

We were continuiously learning, experimenting and launching new connected products and experiences - in addition to creating the future of the connected home, one of the products that we were developing was a connected bed for kids packed with a monster detector, headtilt, sensors and more. Not only was I excited about improving the way kids sleep through technology - it was something that my son could participate in throughout the process. My son and I participated in testing and it inspired me to explore creating connected play experiences with brands that we are passionate about.

We are gaming, tech and connected play fans in my house, we attend gaming conferences and build robots for fun so it only made since that I apply my learnings in creating connected products and experiences across IoT, wearables and connected communities to create new ways for kids to learn, play and discover the world too.

At Collabsco, our work covers a vast spectrum including; scouting what’s new and next in tech, shaping partnerships across global brands and startups, participating at industry leading events (ChiTag, CES, Toy Fairs, SXSW, AWE, etc), leading kid-focused product creation workshops, conducting lean “non-traditional” test and learn sessions with kids and families, prototyping new experiences with new tech, driving “total product” strategies and collaborating with some of the most innovative leaders in connected play. It has been an exciting journey - I’m thankful that my son and I have been able to embark on it together - I learn from him, he learns from me and we have fun along the way.

What is Connected Play?

There are several definitions bouncing around about connected play, we see it in a more expansive way indicative to how people live and experience technology. We define a “Connected Play” experience as one that allows people to interact, play or learn in the physical and digital world.

Connected Play goes beyond toys or a single technology; it encompasses gaming, education and emerging technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), robots, Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), Wearables, Social, Voice Assistants and more.

Juniper Research defines it as “one that must have embedded communications onboard that enables it to interface with a mobile device or games console, while Internet connectivity may be used for the purposes of communications to the cloud.”

As new technologies have evolved so have the ways kids, play, learn and explore their physical and digital world. The Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Robots, Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), EdTech, Makers Tech, Wearables, Social, Near Field Communication (NFC), Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and Voice Assistants are all technologies and ways that have impacted and improved connected play.

Is there a solid market for connected play?

Good news! Connected Play is big business with high growth - according to Juniper Research, “Smart Toys will represent an $18 billion hardware and software market by 2023, up from an estimated $6 billion in 2018” - a 200% increase in five years. That means there are more and more opportunities for global companies as well as up-and-coming startups to create physical and digital connected play experiences. Top growth markets include North America, Western Europe and the Far East & China.

What is the Connected Play Landscape and why was it created?

The connected play industry is complex and ever evolving. I have been fortunate to connect and collaborate with a number of connected play companies - in working on a number of projects I needed to continuously reference multiple sources and views of emerging technologies, toys and games.

In developing the Connected Play Landscape, we conducted interviews with people from global brands, up-and-coming startups, agencies and other industry leaders to see if/how we could make a useful and usable reference for all of the players in the industry. We shared preliminary thinking about the Connected Play Landscape at the Play Innovation Summit, and continued to build out the landscape to now featuring over 100+ companies and connected play experiences.

Our goal is to provide a useful, single view of the companies and technologies impacting how kids play, learn and explore the physical and digital world.

We wanted to provide a consolidated view of the Connected Play Landscape to create an awareness of the companies and collaborators breaking barriers through the power of technology and connected play.

What are few key takeaways from the Connected Play Landscape?

When kids play they do not differentiate between “physical play” or “digital play” it is all “play” in one world and it’s how they want and expect to play. Companies both big and small see big opportunities in connected play and merging the physical and digital worlds for the way kids live.

Portfolio Power

LEGO and Hasbro lead the way in building their connected play portfolios across multiple technologies and experiences. LEGO has brought to market the most well rounded connected play portfolio extending across IoT, Robotics, AR, EdTech, Social and Voice whereas Hasbro has launched the most connected play experiences across IoT, AR, NFC/RFID, and Voice with experiences extending across their intellectual properties. Spin Master expands their connected play portfolio across AI, Robots and AR while Mattel focuses on IoT, AR and EdTech.

Fierce and Focused

Companies such as WowWee, Wonder Workshop, Anki, Pai Technology, UBTECH, MERGE, littleBits, Kano, Technology Will Save Us and Sensible Object continue to be fiercely focused on what they do really well, building rich products and experiences in their core areas of expertise. They have multiple products in market and are built as connected play companies from the ground up.


With more technology becoming more accessible there are more players than ever entering the connected play industry. Up-and-coming startups are making their mark by moving fast and launching a unique single product using technology in new ways. A few up-and-comers to watch are Immersive Play, Reach Robotics, Swap Bots, Curiscope, PenPal Schools, Circuit Scribe, PlayPORTAL, Read to Me (Electric Factory) and Novel Effect.

Who are the “Connected Cool Kids”?

The “Connected Cool kids” refer to not only the kids of today who embrace technology, emerging tech and play in new ways but also the companies and innovators creating connected play experiences, challenging how kids play, learn and explore the world around them.

Where can we find the Connected Cool Kids?

The Chicago Toy and Game Week is an excellent event for all of the “Connected Cool Kids” to showcase the future of play and gain valuable insights to improve the product experience. If you are helping to create the future of play through connected play let us know if you will be attending Chicago Toy and Game week - we’d love to connect and meet up.

Want more information about connected play?

If you’d like to receive further information on connected play, learn more about how Collabsco can collaborate with your organization or submit a company for inclusion in the Connected Play Landscape, please contact Valerie Vacante, Founder and Managing Partner

About the Author

Valerie Vacante, is the Founder, Managing Partner of Collabsco, a strategy and innovation collective based in Austin, Texas. Valerie has pioneered​ ​digital​ ​products​ ​and​ ​integrated​ ​marketing experiences​ ​across​ ​digital​ ​platforms,​ ​connected​ ​communities,​ ​IoT and extended reality experiences for Fortune 100 brands and up-and-coming startups. You can likely find her at arcades, museums, tech incubators and almost anywhere creators are designing the future.

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