Toymaker Mattel has unveiled a high-tech Barbie that will listen to your child, record its words, send them over the internet for processing, and talk back to your kid. It will email you, as a parent, highlights of your youngster’s conversations with the toy.
If Samsung’s spying smart TVs creeped you out, this doll may be setting off alarm bells too – so we drilled into what’s going on.
The Hello Barbie doll is developed by San Francisco startup ToyTalk, which says it has more than $31m in funding from Greylock Partners, Charles River Ventures, Khosla Ventures, True Ventures and First Round Capital, and others.
Its Wi-Fi-connected Barbie toy has a microphone, a speaker, a small embedded computer with a battery that lasts about an hour, and Wi-Fi hardware. When you press a button on her belt buckle, Barbie wakes up, asks a question, and turns on its microphone while the switch is held down.
The child’s replies are recorded, encoded, and sent in an encrypted form to ToyTalk’s servers, CEO Oren Jacob explained to The Register. The audio is processed by voice-recognition software, allowing ToyTalk’s systems to figure out what was said and how best to reply.
The doll is loaded up with scripts to read, and one of these is selected depending on what the kid said. If the tyke shows an interest in a particular past-time or thing, the doll’s backend software will know to talk about that – giving the kid the impression that chatty Barbie’s a good, listening friend.
Crucially, the recorded audio of children’s voices (and whatever else happens to be going on around them when they push the buckle button) is kept on ToyTalk’s computers. This material is supposed to help Mattel and ToyTalk improve Barb’s scripted replies. It’s also good test data for developing the voice-recognition code.