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Consumer Products

Talk of the town: Internet-connected toys make their mark

From the mag: CogniToys and Hello Barbie rightfully drew their fair share of "oohs" and "aahs" from techies and toycos alike when they were unveiled to the world at New York Toy Fair.
April 20, 2015

CogniToys and Hello Barbie rightfully drew their fair share of “oohs” and “aahs” from techies and toycos alike when they were unveiled to the world at New York Toy Fair in February.

These new physical-digital toys can hold conversations with kids by sourcing answers to their questions from cloud-based platforms and then respond in real time. Internet connectivity means they can be continuously updated and improved, and they are designed to learn about and evolve with children over time. While the two speech-enabled toys may sound very similar, the companies behind the tech differ in many ways.

Powered by IBM Watson’s cognitive technology and its own speech-recognition platform, Elemental Path’s CogniToys dinosaur can answer thousands of questions—and even tell jokes. A press of its belly gets the conversation started.

Founded in 2014, the New York-based company launched CogniToys on Kickstarter in mid-February with a goal of raising US$50,000 in 30 days—it reached the target within 24 hours. The first dinos will be available through Kickstarter in November for US$99.99 each and are expected to head to retail in 2016. But Elemental Path’s co-founder Donald Coolidge explains the company is not looking to become a toy maker, per se.

“We’re more a technology company,” he says, adding business plans include improving its platform and working with companies to build educational products, like the dinos, which have learning modules that becoming increasingly challenging. The toy is also designed to let parents monitor their children’s progress and moderate content.

Following the buzz from Toy Fair and Kickstarter, Elemental Path has been in serious talks with “several of the major players” and expects to announce a tech-licensing partnership soon. “It would be us working strategically with one partner to build a product together—an established and well-known brand using our technology to give it that fun and educational play,” says Coolidge.

San Francisco, California’s ToyTalk, meanwhile, made a licensing play with Mattel’s Hello Barbie, which is powered by Toy Talk’s PullString conversational character technology. By connecting Barbie to an app and WiFi, kids can ask her questions, engage in conversation and play games, thanks to a built-in microphone and speaker. After the initial set-up, Barbie works without a smart device. The doll is expected to be ready for Christmas 2015 sales, toting an SRP of US$74.99.

ToyTalk was founded in 2011 and has raised more than US$31 million in funding from a number of investors. In addition to licensing its technology, the company is also in the app-creation business. It launched the first-ever talk-and-touch speech-recognition app SpeakaLegend (US$1.99) last September, which lets kids converse with mermaids, fairies and dragons. The company now has four apps available on the market, two free and two paid, and will be launching a paid Thomas and Friends app with Mattel in July.

ToyTalk hosts all of its characters on a cloud called Puppeteer, with which its apps also connect to engage in conversation. However, algorithms do not generate dialog for the characters. Everything they say or don’t say comes from the hands of writers, says Oren Jacob, ToyTalk’s founder and CEO. “Authoring conversation, at a pretty foundational level, is a new form of media. The entity that understands everything is not a character.” In Barbie’s case, there are a lot of things she knows and a lot she doesn’t, he adds.

Since news of the toy broke, more than a few eyebrows have been raised over privacy concerns. So who is listening and what happens to the conversations between kids and Hello Barbie? “The recorded conversions are stored on our secure servers where parents can log in and listen to them at any time or delete them as they wish,” explains Jacob, adding  that Toy Talk and Mattel will only use the conversations to operate and improve the product. “We do not, and will not, use any audio from children for marketing, publicity or advertising purposes.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Kidscreen

About The Author
Patrick Callan is a senior writer at Kidscreen. He reports on the licensing and consumer products side of the global children's entertainment industry via daily news coverage and in-depth features. Contact Patrick at pcallan@brunico.com.

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