There are billions of devices on the Internet of Things (or whatever we're calling it this week) already. Most are mundane. Boring even. Take remotely-readable water meters: Are they vastly more efficient to read than the old-fashioned style that required an inspector to manually visit each one? Absolutely. But they don't exactly attract much attention outside of their industry. Now toys, on the other hand, are things nearly anyone can relate to. And billions upon billions are sold every year, so it's not surprising that they're becoming a hotbed of activity on the IoT.
Just recently both Mattel (makers of Barbie) and IBM (not exactly who you think of when you think "toys") announced ambitious projects to make new toys that are exciting, smart and connected. Barbie's IoT makeover includes wifi connectivity and something called PullString technology that supposedly allows for fully bidirectional conversations with the toy via a cloud-based Siri-style natural language engine and some sort of AI.
The initial version of the toy will be somewhat limited in terms of scope, but because the whole thing is wifi connected, planned software updates will allow it to answer a greater variety of questions as time goes on. Fast Company notes:
A prototype of the doll will be on display at this weekend's Toy Fair in New York, and so far only supports a couple minutes of conversation to answer questions about Barbie and talk about being at Toy Fair. But ToyTalk will be working with Mattel this year on developing conversations around a range of topics they anticipate will interest Barbie fans.
Initial questions will include basics like what's your favorite color or favorite things to do at school, but kids' future aspirations will be a big theme. "The idea is they're going into the things that kids aspire to be and the career paths that Barbie represents, from a scientist, mathematician, surfer, painter, writer, all of the things that Barbie has been," says Jacob. "They'll talk about feelings, and fashion is always fun. It's Barbie, so we have to get there. We'll be taking a look at Barbie and what the girls and boys who play with Barbie want to do, what they want to ask her."
Meanwhile, IBM and startup company CogniToys are launching a new toy dinosaur that uses a wifi link to IBM's Watson supercomputer (yup, the one used to beat Ken Jennings on Jeopary! a few years back) to allow for interactive conversations. At first blush the toy appears that it will support a greater variety of topics and conversational capabilities, likely due to the vast experience that Watson has built up with handling natural language Q&A. Unlike IoT Barbie though (my name, not theirs), CogniToys's tiny plastic dinosaur is meant to engage kids at different levels and encourage learning. The folks at Wired seemed suitably impressed:
Parents connect the toy to a home Wi-Fi network, and then they input some details about their child, including such things as age, grade level, favorite color, sport, or food. This helps the toy interact with the child, but using Watson, it can also evaluate a child’s ability and skill level on its own.
“If your kid is, say, using new vocabulary words, we can bump up the skill level on the assessments to push the child further,” Coolidge says. A child in the first grade, he says, would use the toy differently from someone in the second grade.
Based on the amount of interest that these toys are generating, I expect to see a lot more company-backed and crowd-funded smart toy efforts come to fore soon.