Persuading Children that Their Toys are Alive

Hello Barbie


Sun, Sep 20th, 2015 11:00 by capnasty NEWS

Although there are concerns about privacy with Mattel's Hello Barbie, the technology behind it is able to take a formerly inanimate ojbect and — albeit not good enough to pass a Turing test — give children the impression the toy is alive.

This summer, when I visited Mattel’s sprawling campus in El Segundo, a prototype of Hello Barbie stood in the middle of a glass-topped conference table, her blond tresses parted on the right and cascading down to her left shoulder. She looked like your basic Barbie, but Aslan Appleman, a lead product designer, explained that her thighs had been thickened slightly to fit a rechargeable battery in each one; a mini-USB charging port was tucked into the small of her back.

A microphone, concealed inside Barbie’s necklace, could be activated only when a user pushed and held down her belt buckle. Each time, whatever someone said to Barbie would be recorded and transmitted via Wi-Fi to the computer servers of ToyTalk. Speech-recognition software would then convert the audio signal into a text file, which would be analyzed. The correct response would be chosen from thousands of lines scripted by ToyTalk and Mattel writers and pushed to Hello Barbie for playback — all in less than a second.

‘‘Barbie, what is your full name?’’ Appleman asked the doll as I watched.

‘‘Oh, I thought you knew,’’ Barbie replied. ‘‘My full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts.’’



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