Barbie has been America's best-known doll for five and a half decades, but come this holiday season, kids will get to know her even better. That's when Mattel, in partnership with San Francisco startup ToyTalk, is expected to release Hello Barbie, an Internet-connected version of the doll that has real conversations with kids using ToyTalk's PullString technology.
This will be no Barbie-shaped Teddy Ruxpin with a handful of pre-programmed phrases, as talking Barbies have been in the past. ToyTalk's speech recognition platform, currently powering the company's own interactive iPad apps including The Winston Show, SpeakaLegend, and SpeakaZoo, allows writers to create branching dialogue based on what children will potentially actually say, and collects kids' replies in the cloud for the writers to study and use in an evolving environment of topics and responses.
"The most requested thing that kids have wanted to do with Barbie, and Mattel's done unbelievable amounts of research over the course of decades, is to talk to Barbie," says ToyTalk CEO Oren Jacob, Pixar's former CTO, who worked at the groundbreaking animation company for 20 years. "That's the number one request over all demographics, over all geographies, of all time. For the first time we're doing that for real now."
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."
And like with ToyTalk's other products, the company's scriptwriters will also be able to adjust as they hear what kids say to Barbie over time. "Whatever we come away with as our first blush attempt at the conversations, we'll see week one what kids want to talk about or not," says Jacob. "We'll take our honest best guess at that and then see what comes back, and then that will change and evolve over time as those conversations happen between individual children and Barbie dolls."
To facilitate conversation, like ToyTalk's apps, Hello Barbie will have a hold-to-talk button to ensure that she's only responding to speech that kids want her to. "Right now the hold-to-talk button is a belt buckle," says Jacob, "but I can certainly see other accessories that you could press to talk to Barbie."
For an iconic brand that has recently seen tough competition and declining sales, the partnership with ToyTalk is a bold move—ToyTalk has had a lot of success with its interactive apps, but this will be the first of the company's actual talking toys.
"I think it's a very brave move for them, a substantial and meaningful innovative change for them to reach out to a company like ToyTalk is and bring that to a commercial product in their primary brand," says Jacob. "Most companies would not take that risk and see that opportunity at the same time, and I'm so stoked to be making real what kids have imagined for decades."
Mattel is also being aggressive with Hello Barbie's timetable. "The normal life cycle for these things is 18 months to get to market, but this is happening much faster," says Jacob. "The speed with which an organization of Mattel's size has been moving to make this happen is shocking to us, and we're a Silicon Valley startup. It's not often that a company with Mattel's size and history can walk into this and start running faster than you, but that is happening. We're doing our best to keep up with them on this, to their credit."
As for the creative process, Jacob says it's an exciting challenge to dream up interactions for a children's well-known icon rather than ToyTalk's own original characters. "We're having a great time working with them in the writing," he says. "What it means to write these conversations for a character with her history is such a joy and such a unique opportunity."