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Saturday, March 10, 2007

Hit's failure to woo Japan baffles inventor


In the U.K. over Christmas, 300,000 electronic Test Tube Aliens flew off toy store shelves to encourage kids to be both active and interactive nurturers.

Mike Simpson, entrepreneur and inventor of the  hit toy Test Tube Aliens
Mike Simpson, entrepreneur and inventor of the hit toy Test Tube Aliens, is baffled by the failure of his invention to win favor in Japan.

In Australia and New Zealand as well, orders could not keep up with demand. Since then, China's second-largest toy-making factory in 2006 has been kept busy as the rest of Europe, and much of Asia began jumping onto the bandwagon.

Promotion began in the U.S. just last week, which leaves the second-largest market in the world for manufactured children's toys not simply trailing but out in the cold: Japan.

"It's a mystery to me," says Mike Simpson, the inventor of Test Tube Aliens, who used to live in Tokyo's Jingumae but has moved to leafy Sangubashi with his Japanese wife to start a family.

"It's not that we're not trying here. Is the concept too demanding? Are the aliens too scary? It's even more puzzling when you realize our model maker is Japanese."

Simpson exemplifies the self-made man. Growing up in Redcar near Newcastle, where two industries dominated, he started working at ICI at age 16. "The idea of doing anything we wanted was alien," he jokes. "After I completed my apprenticeship in instrumentation there were no jobs."

He spent six months each of the next two years working on oil rigs. "I was flying three hours out of The Shetlands by helicopter, landing in the North Sea on a rusting hulk without beer and girls. Life was two weeks on, then two weeks off making up for lost time."

Returning, he found friends going to college. "ICI had given us a training course in positive thinking. So I began thinking, maybe I can do anything."

He went to art school, first in Middlesborough and then Manchester. "I was very determined. Worked during the holidays. Did well. Planned a post-grad degree in advanced digital design."

Showing three prototypes at London's New Designers Exhibition -- a fire extinguisher, coffee maker and a vacuum cleaner (in the form of a pink pig with sides that sucked in) that won an award, he was scouted by the Danish toy-making company Lego, based in the small town of Billund.

"They wanted to recruit me on a freelance basis, which suited me just fine. I became what they call a provocateur, a member of their U.K. network, paid to stir them up with new ideas, the freakier the better."

After joining a bus traveling around Europe to touch base with kids and toy markets, Simpson came to Japan on a research trip in 2000. Another junction in his career, he notes: realizing that there were fundamental differences in the market here that Lego back in Billund just did not understand.

Lego had been thinking in terms of global products. Happy with his report on Japan that pointed out where they were going wrong, they sent him to the U.S. for further research.

"I requested to come back here on a Refresh Japan research assignment in 2002, but was given the opportunity to move here and set up a network of Japanese freelance designers, and to create Lego products inspired by Japan."

In 2004, Simpson realized he could start up on his own and created a Japanese company called Mike Simpson Design. Remaining on good terms with Lego, the company has since employed him on occasion.

Though Simpson wanted to be a hi-tech toy designer, it was hard to get off the ground. Living as he did in the "sneaker capital of Tokyo," he kept afloat by providing research and design for Nike and Adidas.

It was through hooking up with another British inventor, Matthew Bickerton back in the U.K., that Simpson was able to enter a third phase of reinvention, in the creation of a new toy company called JKID. Describing his partner as "the most genuine and honest person I have ever met," Bickerton co-invented the Test Tube Aliens.

"Mattel wanted to turn test TTA into a battling toy. Determined to stay true to our original vision, we saw it as a nurturing toy -- sort of like Tamagochi meets Sea monkeys." So JKID hooked up with 4Kidz, a smaller U.S. toy company to help develop the brand.

Which is how TTA came to be released with an initial order in the U.K. and Down Under in late 2006, just in time to catch the Christmas trade.

There are six aliens to choose from, all with names with a Japanese twist, the most obvious of which is Shako. (He's a baddie, by the way.) Each alien comes in a clear plastic test tube, inside which is a solid cocoon. Pour in water and the cocoon fizzes and dissolves to reveal the alien with a visible heartbeat. They then have to be fed (with sloog) and cared for to stay alive.

The aliens, who have liquid- and light-sensing technologies, physically grow to fill their test tubes within the first couple of weeks of their lives.

Enter TTA's Web site, and the first message received reads: The Invasion Begins: From a dying world they come to our own! The better you treat 'em, the longer they live!

"Kids are encouraged to use their imagination and take responsibility. Cause and effect."

Each alien has its own number that can be registered and certified online. The background to each character -- the story of how and why they have come to earth -- place the characters in context. Children can also interact with their alien pal online through asking questions and provoking it directly by holding it up to the flashing screen.

"TTA is the Web's first interactive toy," Simpson says happily.

Test Tube Alien 2 is in the works, with the interactive nature of the toy becoming increasingly intricate and absorbing. There are also plans for two more associated toy launches, starting with a range of Web-interactive rubber alien brains, and continuing with DNA scraped from an alien's body transformed into what Simpson calls a Micro Pet.

He says he has to thank his wife (who until recently described his work as a hobby) for standing beside him through the hard times. Now that the royalty checks are coming in, he can consider selling the TTA brand in a few years time and concentrating more on new toys.

Still, it is frustrating that Japan is not buying into the success of his first product. "I know this market from every possible angle, and still I don't know what's going on."



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