Carly Gloge has a beef with the toy industry. She believes its focus is all about sales–which means encouraging parents to buy as many throwaway toys as possible–not on engaging kids for any period of time. The “toy industry doesn’t care about kids,” she says.
It’s a statement the industry hates, as judged by some of the nasty mail Gloge has received. But she isn’t bothered: True or not, it helps make the case for Ubooly, her own product. “They are really offended, but our number one focus is on kids’ retention. It’s not about dollars. They can’t honestly claim the same for their toys.”
Ubooly is a soft toy animated by a smartphone or tablet. Parents place a device inside, turning the goofy face into a companion-teacher with advanced speech recognition skills. “Kids feel like it’s magic when Ubooly starts talking. They don’t understand how it happens,” Gloge says. “They see the app and the phone going into the toy, but then there’s a suspension of disbelief. They start treating it like a real creature.”
Gloge, who lives in Boulder, Colorado, developed Ubooly with her husband, Isaac. The two were working in mobile apps and could see how fascinated kids were with them–but they also felt like “something was being lost.” “That imaginative play you get with a stuffed animal or building blocks was happening less and less,” she says.
Ubooly crosses a traditional toy with an app full of educational and playful content. For example, kids can go on adventures with Ubooly to strange, wonderful kingdoms, or complete missions while they are brushing their teeth. Parents can customize Ubooly to have similar likes (food, favorite color) and to remember names. Ubooly recognizes hundreds of keywords, making conversations about 90% interactive, she says.
The team has raised $2.5 million in seed funding, and it just signed a deal with Apple to appear in its stores in Europe and Japan. Kloge is now busy converting the toy’s content and keyword library into five foreign languages. Ubooly is also running a Kickstarter campaign offering some special-edition features and rewards.
Ubooly hopes to build a business around sales of the toy ($30 retail) and additional education packs ($3 a time). The app itself is free.
“Our biggest challenge is showing how kids interact with our product versus a traditional app,” she says. “They think kids are going to stare down at the screen the whole time, like they do with everything else. The difference with our product is that kids are moving around, climbing underneath tables pretending, and using their imagination. There’s an emotional attachment. When they’re playing Angry Birds, they’re not really interacting back.”