With the invention of Hello Barbie, a doll that remembers and reacts to its playmates’ comments, toys might soon become as smart as iPhones.
Mattel, the company behind Barbie, recently teamed up with ToyTalk to develop Hello Barbie, which will be available for sale this fall. ToyTalk is known for developing apps containing characters that listen and speak to their users.
Hello Barbie will be able to record what children say, analyze these recordings and tailor its future conversations to the interests of their playmates. Before finalizing Hello Barbie, Mattel and ToyTalk worked with actual children, testing their reactions to different questions and statements posed by the doll.
The doll will send the recordings that it makes to a server where the recordings will be processed so that Hello Barbie can draw upon them in future conversations.
In addition to highlighting how comfortable children are with smart technology, the creation of Hello Barbie reflects the growing profitability of computerized toys and the fall in the market share of traditional, non-technological toys. Mattel’s sales of Barbie dolls dropped 16 percent in 2014 and have been on the decline for the past three years. Bryan Stockton, Mattel’s CEO, was fired in January of 2015.
The creation of this new toy has sparked a debate, with Hello Barbie’s advocates claiming the plaything helps children learn better and critics claiming that Hello Barbie violates its users’ privacy and asking Mattel to stop producing the toy.
Although parents will have to provide Mattel with permission to record what their children say, they will not be able to control how the dolls will respond. However, they will be able to listen to the recordings saved on Hello Barbie and delete them.
The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) objected to the production of Hello Barbie, arguing that it violates the privacy of the children playing with it.
“Kids using ‘Hello Barbie’ aren’t only talking to a doll, they are talking directly to a toy conglomerate whose only interest in them is financial. It’s creepy — and creates a host of dangers for children and families,” Dr. Susan Linn, the Executive Director of CCFC, said in a March 10 statement.
Others have voiced concerns that Hello Barbie’s dialogue could take advantage of children; for instance, Barbie could brainwash kids into supporting Mattel.
On the other hand, advocates of the technologically advanced doll suggest that playing with Hello Barbie can contribute to children’s cognitive development because it interacts with them on a more personal level than do less sophisticated toys with simple automated recordings. For instance, The New York Times cited a study showing that children performed better on cognitive tests when they played with toys that knew their names than with toys that could not recall any personal details about them.
In any case, the creation of toys that can act as virtual playmates has the potential to fundamentally change kids’ childhoods — the jury is still out on whether the change will be beneficial or harmful.