Connected, Talking Toys: Striving to Exceed Expectations

ToysChildren have always imagined dolls and other toys that could talk to them like real people. The new generation of WiFi-enabled web-connected toys has the technology to get close to realizing that dream. The implications for both entertainment and education are huge.

Connected Toys Have the Technology to Hear, Understand, and Speak

The most advanced connected toys can be equipped with automatic speech recognition (ASR), natural language understanding (NLU), dialogue management, and text-to-speech (TTS) abilities. These toys can hear and understand what a child says, determine an appropriate response, and speak using a synthesized voice.

Although Amazon’s Echo product isn’t in the toy category, the Echo and its built-in voice assistant Alexa are getting many parents and their children comfortable talking to an interactive smart device. Amazon now even offers the technology powering the Echo–the Alexa Voice Service (AVS)–to third parties to embed into their own devices.

We’ve come a long way since the days of pullstring toys and Furbie. But in spite of all the technology, there are still challenges involved in realizing every child’s dream and meeting the expectations of parents. In this post I’ll address two of these challenges and potential solutions

Challenge 1: Mimicking Real-Life Conversations

Child on BeachFirst and foremost is the challenge of making connected toys fun and engaging for children. To be engaging, the toy needs to mimic real-life conversation. Unfortunately, creating a toy that can carry on completely lifelike conversations, including turn taking, remembering context, and inventing responses on the fly, is not currently possible.

Toymakers can’t anticipate what a child might want to talk about, so toys can’t be pre-programmed to respond to every imaginative remark or suggestion. To get around this constraint, toys such as Mattel’s Hello Barbie take the lead in the conversation. Hello Barbie suggests topics to discuss and games to play.

Potential Solution

Even with the doll setting the direction of the conversation, a child can still be encouraged to think and imagine. The toy can suggest topics and imaginary adventures and prompt the child for input. If developed in a skillful way, these toy-directed dialogues can be very engaging for the child, especially if the toy can understand and respond to the child’s input.

Parents will see that their child is being encouraged to imagine and even think about new things. Children will feel empowered and will enjoy getting positive reinforcement from their conversational partner.

Pullstring (formerly ToyTalk)–the company behind Hello Barbie’s dialogue–offers a platform to support any company in building conversational dialogue. There are other existing services that toymakers can leverage to build dialogue if they don’t want to create and maintain their own proprietary platform.

Challenge 2: Keeping the Content Pipeline Filled

Creating hours or even days-worth of original engaging content is time consuming, to say the least. Everything a talking toy says, all of its dialogue, every story it tells, every game it directs the child to play, must be scripted. Content is what makes a talking toy interesting and valuable. A toy that only has a few things to say will quickly be cast aside.

Since today’s talking toys are connected to the cloud, they can access databases full of content. There’s still a question of where the content will come from and whether or not parents will feel comfortable trusting it.

Potential Solution

As more talking toys enter the market, we can assume that more people will be motivated to create content for these devices. At we create interactive stories and other engaging content designed for conversational devices, including talking toys. Our goal is to widen the funnel and collect, curate, and distribute content from many diverse content contributors.

We’re just at the start of the journey to create engaging talking toys that meet all the expectations of both parents and children. But the journey will no doubt be an interesting and rewarding one.

How Do Talking Toys Measure Up So Far?

I recently gave a presentation on talking toys at SpeechTek 2016, a technology conference.  I had a Hello Barbie with me and gave a demonstration of it after connecting to a personal MiFi device. Following the demo, several audience members said they were pleasantly surprised at the positive conversational experience a child could have with the talking doll. In fact, one person admitted that prior to the demo, they had a negative impression of the product just based on press coverage.

While talking toys certainly aren’t perfect, the best connected toys can already offer children a rich and engaging experience. As those of us in the industry continue to find solutions to the inherent challenges, web-connected toys will continue to improve and exceed expectations.


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