At New York's Toy Fair, the toy industry's big February trade show, visitors to Mattel's booth were greeted, literally, by Hello Barbie, a Wi-Fi–connected doll that uses speech-recognition technology to have real conversations with kids. The prototype was programmed with a few lines of dialogue specific to visiting New York and the Toy Fair, well short of the hours of conversation she'll be prepared to engage in when she's released officially later this year. Still, she performed so well that some visitors asked if there was a woman with a microphone hiding behind a curtain, and an unplanned "interview" with CNBC's Morgan Brennan went off without a hitch. "She went six or seven questions deep," says former Pixar CTO Oren Jacob, now cofounder and CEO of ToyTalk, the company behind the doll's conversation technology. "And she crushed it."
But less than a month later, the advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), led by director Susan Linn, launched a nationwide crusade urging Mattel to cancel production of the doll. Their concern: ToyTalk's technology—which records kids' speech and sends it to a cloud server for analysis—is "seriously creepy" and would allow Barbie (and therefore Mattel) to eavesdrop on children. Media reports popped up suggesting that the doll would always be on, always listening. By April 1, CCFC's online petition had received 25,000 signatures.
The controversy underscores how rampantly privacy concerns can spread in today's hypervigilant environment. ToyTalk's Jacob was flabbergasted by "inaccuracies that were reported and re-reported," he says. Hello Barbie is not always recording, he stresses, but rather works like a walkie-talkie, requiring a child to hold down a button (actually, Barbie's belt buckle) to activate recording. ToyTalk's technology has already been embraced by more than half a million users of interactive iPad apps like the Winston Show and SpeakaZoo, and privacy concerns had been few and mild. So what made this use different?
All Internet-connected toys and services, including ToyTalk's, are governed by the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, which requires parental consent before any kind of data—including voice data—is collected from products created for or used regularly by children under 13. To function fully, Hello Barbie must be synced with an iOS or Android app, at which point parents are required to read and e-sign a three-paragraph consent form detailing what data will be collected and how it will be used.
In exchange for that consent—and, arguably, to entice it—Hello Barbie offers parents a weekly email with links to their child's audio sessions, which they can listen to and delete from the company's servers at any time. What happens to the saved recordings is what sparks privacy concerns. Under Hello Barbie's terms of service, recordings "may be used for research and development purposes," things like improving its technology and refining its algorithms. The data is "absolutely not allowed to be used for advertising, publicity, or marketing purposes," says Jacob.
"What does that mean?" counters CCFC's Linn, who is concerned about the outgoing messages from Mattel as well as the saved recordings. "Does that mean the doll will never mention Barbie or any of Barbie's friends? If a child is talking about Barbie and the doll is responding by continuing a conversation about Barbie, that's advertising." Joni Lupovitz, VP of policy at Common Sense Media, another advocacy group, takes the argument a step further. Hello Barbie is "essentially enabling an ongoing conversation with a stranger, so who knows what your child might say or what the computer might reply?" she says. It's "stranger danger" for the digital age.
Mattel's response to this kerfuffle has been, essentially, nothing. "Our plans are unchanged," says Michelle Chidoni, Mattel's director of communications. Why? Because, Chidoni says, kids' number-one request for decades has been to be able to talk to Barbie. Customer demand is the trump card, in toys as it has been in nearly every other area of technology development. (Search "child plays with Siri" on YouTube to see how much parents love that program as a children's toy.)
"The Internet connectivity thing is just not going away," says Ken Seiter, VP of communications for the Toy Industry Association, who cites the growing swarm of smartphone-controlled robotic toys. ToyTalk and Mattel are not the only ones in the field using speech recognition. Elemental Path, for instance, recently raised $275,000 on Kickstarter in just four weeks to fund CogniToys' Dino, which, according to its project page, will "get to know the child and grow with him/her, interacting directly with them to create an experience around each child's personal interests."
"We're going to do our best to be appealing and engaging and to celebrate the aspirations that kids have," says ToyTalk's Jacob. "That's a gift to bring that to market."
A version of this article appeared in the June 2015 issue of Fast Company magazine.