While countless media reports gave augmented reality toys and robotic gadgets a leg up at this year’s Las Vegas CES tech fest and New York Toy Fair, there was really only one thing on everybody’s lips—voice assistants. From Amazon Alexa’s SpongeBob SquarePants game, to Mickey Mouse’s signature falsetto migrating onto Google Home, kids content makers are looking to capitalize on the power of AI-enabled, talkable tech in completely novel ways. And their interest is warranted.
According to market research firm The NPD Group, voice assistant ownership among US internet-enabled households currently sits at 15%, and that number is expected to grow by a whopping 50% in the next year. Meanwhile, an Amazon and US Family Online Safety Institute study recently found that the majority of parents want their kids to interact with and learn from their family’s voice assistant. And if you ask traditional media companies, startups and scientific researchers, this undertaking is a win for almost everyone.
“For kids, voice assistants are intuitive and easy to understand,” says Matthew Evans, EVP of digital strategy at Nickelodeon. “Children approach technology with different levels of development when it comes to spelling, writing and keyboard usage. But they all know how to use their voices. So this tech reduces some friction…and I think kids get a lot out of hearing their favorite characters talk to them and become part of a story setting.”
Evans says Nickelodeon is interested in a wide range of voice assistant offerings currently on the market, including Amazon’s Echo (US$129.99) and Dot (US$69.99), Google Home (US$129) and Mini (US$59.99), and Apple’s recently released HomePod (US$349). Notwithstanding the HomePod, these devices sold a combined 26 million units in the US in 2017, roughly doubling their sales volume from 2016. “The market has grown by about 100%,” says Ben Arnold, executive director and consumer electronics analyst at The NPD Group. “We’re seeing household ownership increase dramatically.”
As sales continue to soar, kids content makers are jumping on the opportunity to offer up brand-new co-viewing (or co-listening) experiences that go beyond the limitations of tablets—and even TV sets. Nickelodeon was among the first to head the call, after Amazon launched parental permissions via the Alexa app for its voice-enabled devices last August. (Consent can be provided either through an SMS-generated password or by credit card verification, and it extends to all of Alexa’s kids skills.)
Three months later, the US Federal Trade Commission revised the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) to essentially look the other way when companies collect voice recordings of children under the age of 13, citing that the “FTC would not take an enforcement action,” as long as companies use an audio file to transcribe a command and then immediately delete it.
“Once Amazon came to us and said it had viable parental consent, we felt comfortable that the Alexa offered a kid-safe, directed area that we could move into,” says Evans. Launched in August for six- to 11-year-olds, SpongeBob Challenge for Alexa uses the iconic sounds of Bikini Bottom and turns kids into new Krusty Krab restaurant employees tasked with taking increasingly complicated food orders. The skill—which includes 70 characters, 80 challenges and 25 levels—has been a big success for Nickelodeon, with players returning to the game at least five times per month on average. The kidsnet is now looking to create additional Alexa content aimed at preschoolers, as well as activities for other devices.
In terms of preschool fare, Nickelodeon will soon have a competitor in the space. Amazon-backed startup Novel Effect is currently adapting its reading app into an Alexa skill that will add phrases and sound effects to well-known books like Where the Wild Things Are. For example, dance music will start playing when someone says, “Let the wild rumpus start!”
“We wanted to create a voice experience that promotes parent-child interaction,” says Novel Effect CEO Matt Hammersley. “We saw such a hole in the marketplace. All of the digital devices out there are meant to be given to a kid so that parents can walk away, but technology can be used to promote spending time together. If you remove the screen from the environment, you are more free to have a physical interaction.”
Aside from strengthening family bonds, this level of screen-free engagement could also have health benefits, according to David Bickham, a research scientist at the Center on Media and Child Health at Harvard University.
“Contributing to compulsive mobile use are apps designed to ping you with push notifications. These deliver bursts of dopamine that really fuel a certain kind of engagement that I don’t see the Alexa or Siri doing. They aren’t designed to suck you in in the same way,” says Bickham. “From what I’ve seen, there isn’t anything that mimics the type of rewards program that a lot of video games have, where you’re trying to complete a level or mission. Voice assistants are almost universally passive in that they wait to be activated, and that really reduces my concern over kids using them in problematic ways.”
But if voice-enabled devices aren’t prompting kids to keep coming back, will they want to engage of their own volition? Bickham says he’s not concerned about user retention, since kids naturally enjoy the technology and their seamless ability to interact with it.
While media companies and researchers alike continue to see the benefits of AI-enabled voice tech, some children’s content makers are exercising restraint when it comes to brand integration. Sara DeWitt, VP of digital at PBS KIDS, is concerned about how the youngest of kids—those who can’t read yet and might actually benefit the most from something like this, over a tablet—might be affected.
“I think this tech could be exciting for a preschooler, but there are so many questions about how they might approach a device, and whether or not they really understand who or what they’re talking to,” says DeWitt. “There’s been a lot of research on kids’ ability to differentiate television content from an ad, and that’s something that preschoolers can’t really grasp. So you take that to a whole other extreme when there’s something that doesn’t have a visual component to it. Is that a person, a robot or a machine? Then what if it shifts to a character’s voice—are you really talking to this character? How much do kids really understand what’s going on there?”
Mattel is one company that knows the potential drawbacks to this type of technology all too well. At CES 2017, the US toyco debuted its Aristotle voice assistant, which aimed to take children from infancy into adolescence using artificial intelligence as a digital tutor, entertainer and more. But Aristotle never saw the light of day, after a petition from the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and Story of Stuff Project rallied thousands of signatures, and US government officials sent letters to Mattel arguing that children shouldn’t be encouraged to form bonds with data-collecting devices.
Mattel is now wading back into the space with the release of its new game, Escape Room in a Box, which launched at February’s New York Toy Fair. The toyco has partnered with The Werewolf Experiment on the title, which integrates with Amazon Alexa to offer sound effects and hints when prompted.
“I think this offers an extra dimension to play,” says Mattel CTO Sven Gerjet. “I really love how we’ve made the gaming experience more immersive using devices that people already use in their homes.”
Gerjet adds that Mattel doesn’t intend to put out additional Amazon Alexa experiences or Google Home activities any time soon, but the company is looking to carefully re-enter the voice assistant space with more games and toys that are enhanced with the tech. “We know that not everyone has a voice assistant, although many people do. So we keep asking ourselves how to evolve gameplay to the next level without it being a complete pivot to digital.”