The urge to create life-like mechanical beings dates back to ancient times, but recent history is also sprinkled with the invention of new kinds of animatronic figures and smart toys. Some have been used in theme parks and other public settings, while others have been devised as playthings.
In 1985, every child wanted to own a Teddy Ruxpin toy, a teddy bear that sang and told stories as its lips moved in synchronization with its speech. To operate this mechanical toy, the parent or child inserted an audiocassette into its body.
The first computerized life forms, the Tamagotchi key chain pets, were introduced by the Japanese in 1996. Though two-dimensional, not three, these virtual pets had entirely life-like needs—they had to be fed and cared for or they would die. They were so compelling that children would be grief stricken if their pets passed away, and Tamagotchi cemeteries were even established for the deceased creatures.
The Tamagotchi pets were not the only digital creatures to debut in 1996. The Tickle Me Elmo doll from Sesame Street, which would laugh when you tickled its stomach, was a big hit that year. It was the world’s first commercial computerized 3D toy, and so popular that stores were quickly sold out of it that Christmas. Though it sold for only $30 retail, black market Elmos were going for $2500 to $3000.
From that point on, each Christmas season seemed to have its own star smart toy, with increasingly sophisticated features. In 1997, Interactive Barney was the big smart toy sensation. The stuffed purple creature had a vocabulary of 2000 words and played a dozen toddler-friendly games. The year 1998 actually had two stars. One was the stuffed toy, Furby, from Tiger Electronics, who allegedly came from a distant planet and could only speak Furbish when first acquired. Furby, however, could be “taught” English by its human owner. Actually, however, the toy was programmed to progressively speak more English as it was played with and did not have genuine speech recognition.
The second hit toy of 1998 was well named Amazing Amy from Playmates Toys. She was a pretty doll of about toddler age who could verbally express her needs and desires. And her owner could communicate back by squeezing her hand. Amy not only had built-in sensors but also a built-in clock, enabling her to know what time of day it was and act accordingly—wanting her cereal at breakfast time, for example, and getting sleepy at nap or bedtime. She came with a collection of accessories such as plastic food and clothing which she could “recognize.” She knew what she was being “fed” because each piece of plastic food had a tiny resistor, each with its own value, and when inserted into the contact in her mouth, she would know what the food was. Thus she could distinguish pizza from peas or a bottle of milk from a bottle of juice. She could identify what piece of clothing she was wearing by the same type of technology—a resistor on the garment, when plugged into the doll, would communicate what outfit you’d dressed her in and she’d protest if it wasn’t the one she’d asked for. The idea of using resistors and contacts was a breakthrough feature of Amazing Amy and is still being used in today’s smart toys.
In 1999, Sony introduced a sophisticated robotic “companion” dog named Aibo to the Japanese public. With a price tag of over $2000, he was definitely not a children’s toy. Aibos have proven to be more than a novelty; they are still popular many years after their debut. Some adult enthusiasts acquire whole packs of them, and owners get together regularly with others for the equivalent of “play dates.” These smart dogs can see, hear, walk, do tricks, and express canine-appropriate emotions. They love being petted and are responsive to their masters; their personalities are shaped by how they are treated. Sadly, though, Sony discontinued production of the Aibos in 2006, though continued to offer customer support for the winsome little dogs.
The year 2000 was the year of the dueling babies, with three smart digital infants, each with its own unique attributes, vying to be top doll. My Real Baby from Hasbro matured cognitively and emotionally over time. Miracle Moves Baby from Mattel was programmed with thousands of life-like gestures and had skin as soft as a real baby’s. My Dream Baby from MGA entertainment actually grew up in front of your eyes, becoming taller and learning to walk. It also had voice recognition technology; the child who owned it could teach it new words. Each of the three robotic babies had its own persona, just like a real human child. Caleb Chung, who was developing the Mattel baby doll, told Erik Davis of Wired Magazine (September 2000) that the personalities of these smart dolls must ultimately transcend the technology. “With these new toys,” he said, “we are more authors than programmers. It’s like writing a character in a book.”
By the year 2000, the smart toy market was so well established that the data collecting company of NPD estimated that sales were approaching the one billion-dollar mark. Since then, they have ceased collecting figures in this area, reasoning that almost every toy on the market now contains a computer chip, making data collection virtually meaningless.
Qualities of a Successful Smart Toy
No one can absolutely guarantee what toy will be a big hit with children or what moms and dads and grandparents will be willing to line up for in the December cold, hoping to snag for a special child for the holidays. Nevertheless, we can point to some qualities that successful toys have in common, based on comments made by experts in the field, and use these as general guidelines. You may note that many of these qualities are the same as for any interactive product for children. And, if you remove the word “child” here, they apply equally well to smart toys for adults. A successful smart toy is:
● Age appropriate and fits with a typical play pattern for the target age group.
● Fun and has a special magic about it.
● Interactive, not passive, and gives the child a meaningful role.
● Easy to use and not overloaded with too many features.
● Engaging and surprising, keeping the child interested and involved.
● Rewarding in some way, making the child feel good about spending time with it.
● Designed so the technology enhances the experience and doesn’t get in the way.
● Designed so that neither the human nor the toy dominates the experience, offering a balanced exchange between the child and the plaything.
Where Do Ideas for Toys Come From?
Smart toy inventor Judy Shackelford told me she has no fixed starting point in inventing a new toy—it varies from project to project. Sometimes the inspiration may be a new mechanism she learns about, and she thinks of a way it could be used in a toy. Or sometimes she thinks of something new a plaything could do and develops the toy from that idea. Toy designers often copy what people do in real life, she noted. For example, you might see someone roller blading and wonder how you could make that work for a doll. In fact, while she was still at Mattel, three toy inventors presented three different kinds of roller blading dolls. One was a toy on wheels that you pushed; one was operated by remote control, like a little car; and the third moved its legs and body from side to side very realistically, like a person. The third one was the winner. So it’s not just the idea, she pointed out; it’s the execution.
The Value of Focus Groups
To make sure they are on the right track with a new toy, companies that produce toys often conduct focus groups with children in the target demographic. One company that does this is Playmates Toys. Lori Farbanish, Vice President of Girls’ Marketing for Playmates Toys explained to me that by observing real children playing with their toys, they’ve made some significant adjustments to their products. For example, they found that small children had difficulty inserting playpieces into a doll’s hand, so they opened up the doll’s palm in a way that would make it easier. Farbanish said it is important to look at things from a child’s point of view and not from an adult’s. An adult may feel, for instance, that the doll is doing too much prompting, but to the child, the prompting does not seem excessive; instead it seems friendly and helpful.
The Art ofConcatenation
One of the biggest challenges in developing a smart toy is writing the dialogue, because space is at such a premium on the chip, and it competes for room with programming code, sound effects, and music. The chip for the Belle doll, for example, could only contain a maximum of eight minutes of sound. To get the most mileage possible from the available space, they make use of concatenation, the technique of efficiently reusing words and phrases.
For example, as Belle and the child roam through the enchanted castle, Belle might say: “Where should we go next? I know. Let’s explore the...” This part of her dialogue can be reused for any room in the castle, with the specific room filled in as appropriate. The names of rooms—the library, the dining room, and so on—can also be reused in various pieces of dialogue. Concatenation, though a practical solution to the space problem, is a tricky thing to do well. It can make speech sound unnatural and it also relies on precision in script writing and in recording. If an actor improvises a line, for example, it can throw everything off.