Voice recognition toys hit North America

Interactive. During the `90s, the toy industry has paid a lot of lip service to this marketing catch-all, usually in the context of describing toys that kids could interact with by either inputting information via a keyboard (Microsoft ActiMates, for example)...
October 1, 1999

Interactive. During the `90s, the toy industry has paid a lot of lip service to this marketing catch-all, usually in the context of describing toys that kids could interact with by either inputting information via a keyboard (Microsoft ActiMates, for example) or by getting them to speak prerecorded dialogue by activating sensors located beneath their furry exteriors (Furby and Tickle Me Elmo). But the kind of interactivity that toy developers have often hypothesized-a future which would see kids verbally communicate with a toy-has always seemed to remain just out of grasp. Until now.

A new generation of toys that can interpret verbal commands and act on them is beginning to hit the marketplace, courtesy of California toyco MGA Entertainment.

This month, MGAE will begin a limited test-run release of Commando-Bot, an 18-inch robot, that features a speech recognition chip enabling it to process 12 different spoken directives. (The national launch is set for January). Users can control Commando-Bot’s movements up to a radius of 50 feet, get it to blink its laser-like lights, emit techno sounds and launch missiles-without ever having to strike a computer key. To operate the toy, owners must preprogram C-Bot by reciting the commands listed in MGAE’s instruction manual into an accompanying headset. Once recorded, users can give it commands by speaking into the headset, which will then travel via a radio frequency to C-Bot to carry out.

At two and half years in the making, Commando-Bot spent more time in the drawing room than most of MGAE’s toys do, but that’s chiefly because the company was working with new technology, says Kami Gillmour, VP of product development and marketing.

The biggest technical hurdle for the company to overcome was trying to muffle the mechanical sounds the toy makes when it’s moving, so the VR chip could function.

‘Voice recognition technology is still in its infancy. So, fine-tuning the chip so that C-Bot could distinguish between various types of voices, dialects and sounds was a real challenge,’ Gillmour says. ‘Voice recognition is a technology we’re starting to use a lot more in our toys, but there are still some issues with its capabilities.’

Another issue is VR’s price. C-Bot uses a speech-recognition chip designed by Sunnyvale, California-based Sensory-the same company that has created a more advanced version of the chip that NASA is currently using in its robots to explore Mars-which Gillmour says is very expensive and is partially responsible for jacking up the list price of the toy. At US$89.99, the price point of C-Bot may prove prohibitive for some parents. In the past, toys in that price range-like Microsoft Actimates’ Barney, for instance-fell well short of sales expectation, eventually leading Microsoft to lower the price of the toy. Gillmour and MGAE are confident such a scenario won’t befall C-Bot, though, and are banking that the toy’s groundbreaking technical attributes will propel parents to see past the price tag.

For a less costly and, in some ways, more impressive alternative, consumers will have the option to try out Koby, MGAE’s other product featuring the SR chip, which began shipping to toy and mass retailers last month. At an SRP of US$29.99, Koby, a 10-inch plush bear, is not only cheaper than C-Bot, but it doesn’t have to be preprogrammed. Koby can engage in 17 activities, which include testing kids on their multiplication tables and ABCs. Koby’s more advanced neural network allows it to determine when kids have given a correct or incorrect answer, says Gillmour.

Because Koby is a plush animal with educational applications, it’s likely to draw more interest from both boys and girls, whereas Commando-Bot’s combat play values are likely to appeal almost exclusively to boys.

In terms of marketing C-Bot, MGAE is taking a much stealthier approach than it has with Koby. To start with, MGAE is soft-launching Commando-Bot in key retail accounts in the Chicago area only. A Commando-Bot commercial will also begin airing there on local TV starting this month. MGAE’s reason for inconspicuously releasing C-Bot is to buy the company some time to work out any kinks or problems consumers might encounter with the toy, before it launches C-Bot nationally in all toy, mass and department stores in January 2000.

MGA Entertainment has high hopes for the Commando-Bot franchise, and is currently designing its offspring, Commando-Bot II, which is due out in 2001. ‘We project that we will have sold one million to two million units by the end of 2000. That’s quite significant, considering the toy’s price point,’ says Gillmour. She is also predicting that sales of Commando-Bot and Koby will help catapult MGAE above Radica Games to the number-two position in terms of market share of the electronic traditional toys category, behind Tiger Electronics.

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