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Will kids play with Hello Barbie?

Screen Shot 2015-10-24 at 9.55.07 PMFrom an engineering point of view, Hello Barbie is a modern marvel that raises the bar for using technology in toys. Will kids play with her? Yes, but not in the way the designers think. Here’s why.  

Last week I finally had the chance to briefly try the final retail version.  Considering the design constraints, making this doll do what it does required amazing engineering. Barbie must be charged with her cordless stand (like a fancy toothbrush) and synced — a one-time process that requires downloading an app on another connected device. The magic now begins…. Barbie can capture short phrases in hundreds of different dialects and send them to a remote server (aka “the cloud”). Learn more about the technology by watching this interview with the Toy Talk CEO.

The phrase is converted into text, matched and contextualized with other things that your child has said. One of 8000 canned responses are sent back as speach, coming out of the small speaker in Barbie’s abdomen. All this takes place in less than a conversational second. It also must take place in Barbie’s famously slim form factor. So while Barbie looks like a doll, she packs more computing power than an Macintosh Pro, with Wi-Fi.

Barbie’s Seven Hurdles

Screen Shot 2015-10-24 at 10.22.18 PMWill this toy succeed? Perhaps, but only if these seven issues can be resolved.

  1. Initial complexity. Barbie is a “some assembly required” type of toy, and she comes with some expensive pre-requisites, like Wi-Fi and a device that can download apps. After the Hello Barbie setup app is downloaded you have to connect to Barbie, and send her the information about your local network. This includes any security. You’ll also have to agree to let ToyTalk store your child’s voice on their servers. This is a one time process, but this invisible technology prerequisite may frustrate less sophisticated doll buyers.
  2. Only one hour battery life. After about an hour away from her charger/holder, Barbie won’t be able to talk. At least this Barbie has rechargeable batteries and not AAAs. One thing that’s cool… the charging stand. There are no wire connections between Barbie and the power outlet.
  3. Screen Shot 2015-10-24 at 10.27.54 PMWi-Fi. Wander out of range, and Barbie won’t talk. That means Barbie can’t leave the house, and if she does, she’ll need to be synced with a new network. She’s a one house doll.
  4. Imagination (representational play) powers doll play; not robotic conversation. Why do children play with dolls in the first place? They want to act out situations inspired by the real world. Whenever a toy moves, sings or dances, the play dynamic becomes something different. In many ways Barbie’s speech makes her a “watch me toy” or “a toy with a trick.”  That’s a long way from a friend. Yes, she’ll be extremely interesting for the first few battery cycles, and this novelty will garner some five star ratings. But lasting play will happen with child driven dialog.
  5. Barbie flunks the Turing Test. That’s when you can’t tell if computer you’re talking to is a person, or a computer. The test was proposed in 1950 by Alan Turing. When we tested the Toy Talk apps (the technology that drives Barbie) we found the canned phrases to be artificial. Even very young children know that Barbie isn’t human; just as they know that nothing is “living” inside their iPhone when they “talk” with Siri. Barbie delivers careful, canned script and she doesn’t go out of character. Her voice is perfect, and the dialog starts looping after a few questions. It only takes a few question for you to figure out that Barbie is good at redirecting; and attribute that is also true of the ToyTalk apps. They’re impressive from a technology point of view, but they seem inferior compared to what they’re trying to mimic: real, intelligent speech.
  6. Other conversational play technology options are free or cheap. Why pay $60 to talk with Barbie when you can talk to Siri or Cortana for free, or one of the other Toy Talk apps for $.99? We also know that children enjoy faux speech experiences of the variety found in Toca Hair Salon, or Smash Talk where they can hear their own voice. One Barbie-related toy that our testers did like: Sweet Talking Ken. He’s still talking, and still for sale.
  7. You can’t undress her or wash her hair. Electronics don’t like water, so Barbie won’t do well if she’s left out in the rain, gets a hair washing or a bath. While you can change her jacket, you can’t change other parts of her outfit. In other words, this is a convergent toy that tries to fit a child’s ideas about the world into a pre-designed mold, with a big instruction manual.

Based on these seven challenges, we predict next year it will be “Goodbye Barbie.” But that doesn’t mean she’s a loss. Mattel will sell enough to make money, children will be briefly amused. And the toy industry will march forward with it’s dance with microprocessors.

For years, Barbie has he has served as a Sputnik program for the toy industry, pushing engineers rise to the challenge of trying to pack Barbie’s slim figure with technology.

We’ve seen her accessorized with speakers, motors, fiber optic clothing and an impeller-pump designed to push glitterized fluid through special wings.

The money Mattel invests in this type of works helps to push the field. You can learn as much from the “dust” as you do the “magic.”  In the case of Hello Barbie, after the batteries die or the voice stops working, you still have a Barbie with hinged arms and strawberry blond hair that is ready to support a child’s imagination, for better or for worse.

REFERENCES & LINKS

Learn more about the Hello Barbie technology in this New York Times Magazine feature or this ToyTalk blog:   http://blog.toytalk.com/post/111514058319/mattels-hello-barbie-powered-by-toytalk.

Read the CTREX review of Hello Barbie, and leave a your comment (subscribers only).

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One Response to "Will kids play with Hello Barbie?"

  1. maxbet says:

    From an engineering point of view, Hello Barbie is a modern marvel that raises the bar for using technology in toys. Will kids play with her?

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