Conversational Toys – The Latest Trend in Speech Technology

Conversational toys seem to be all the rage. Two new entrants to the market are Mattel’s Hello Barbie and Elemental Path’s new CogniToy dinosaur. Before delving into the specifics of each toy, here’s a list of the primary features that both toys seem to share:

  • Speech recognition and natural language processing capability
  • Connection to the cloud
  • Ability to store basic information from previous conversations
  • Ability to offer personalized responses
  • Software that can evolve over time (get updates from the cloud server)
  • Activation of the toy’s listening mode by pressing a button

Barbie Chatbot Doll Powered by ToyTalk

Hello BarbieMattel is partnering with ToyTalk for the Hello Barbie doll. ToyTalk produces several popular mobile apps for children. ToyTalk also has speech recognition technology that’s specifically tuned to understand the higher register and more erratic speech patterns of children’s voices.

A Mattel spokesperson provided a brief demo of Hello Barbie at the recent Toy Fair 2015 in New York. Hello Barbie’s current conversational abilities are comparable to those of a chatbot that’s connected to Wikipedia or some other data source.

The talking Barbie can also store information about its conversational partners in the cloud, so that it can call on its memory to create more personalized responses. In the demo example, Hello Barbie remembers that its interlocutor enjoys being onstage. When the question of possible future jobs comes up, Hello Barbie uses this stored information to suggest a career such as dancer or politician, presumably since both jobs involve lots of time onstage.

According to the spokesperson, Barbie will have the ability to play simple conversational games, tell jokes and stories, and learn more about the person its talking to. The company hopes that offering this type of dynamic interaction with the doll will deepen the child’s relationship with it.

CogniToys by Elemental Path on Kickstarter

CogniToyElemental Path is currently blowing the roof off  the Kickstarter campaign to fund their CogniToys talking toy project. The last time I looked, they had raised over three times more than the $50K they were asking for, and there were still 23 days left in the campaign.

Elemental Path seems to have evolved from Majestyk Apps, which was one of the winners of the IBM Watson Mobile Developer Challenge.

Elemental Path is marketing their first production talking toy as both educational as well as entertaining. On their Kickstarter video, the cute dinosaur creature quizzes kids on simple math and counting exercises, answers science trivia questions, and tells knock knock jokes.

From the demo, it’s not completely clear how the CogniToy leverages the IBM Watson technology. Based on the Elemental Path website, the toy’s technology contains a dialogue engine that uses advanced language processing algorithms.

Concerns About Conversational Toys?

In an opinion piece for ComputerWorld.com, Mike Elgan writes about the potentially darker side of both Hello Barbie and CogniToys. Elgan’s main concern about the Barbie toy is that it pulls young children into a world of total surveillance. Everything children say to their Barbie is captured and sent to the cloud to be analyzed and stored on ToyTalk’s server. According to Elgan, ToyTalk will also email conversations to the parent.

In the case of CogniToys, Elgan expresses concern that the question-answering dinosaur teaches children that knowledge is stored in the cloud and served up by Artificial Intelligence. In the future, Elgan fears that children may not have to learn or experience on their own. Instead, they’ll just ask their intelligent assistant for the answer.

What’s the Market for Conversational Toys?

If the success of Elemental Path’s Kickstarter campaign is any indication, there might be a sizeable market for conversational toys. The fact that Mattel feels motivated to partner with ToyTalk is another sign that we need to take the trend seriously.

Will children be better off with conversational toys than without them? Only time will tell. It seems to me that there can be many positive outcomes to interactions with toys like Hello Barbie and CogniToys. It depends in large part on what producers “program” the toys to do, how interactive we can make them, and whether they will spark a child’s creativity and critical thinking capacity as opposed to stifling them.

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