Connected Toys

A new crop of toys take advantage of trends in wireless connectivity, the internet of things, artificial intelligence, and machine learning to create highly personalized exchanges between object and child.

How It’s Developing

Increasing availability of internet connected devices and breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and speech recognition have allowed a growing number of devices — smartphones, computers, cars — to use conversation, listening to users and generating intelligent responses, as a primary computing interface. [1] As this conversational technology expands, it has also become available in toys and other products marketed to children and young people.

Connected toys are developing in response to children’s growing access to screens, adjusting traditional objects to have more of the engagement elements that digital screens provide – though in doing this, they raise many of the same concerns that parents and educators have over children’s use of passive digital technologies. [2]

Mattel’s Hello Barbie, produced in collaboration with San Francisco-based artificial intelligence company ToyTalk, integrated a microphone that could be activated when a user pushed and held down her belt buckle with resulting conversations recorded and transmitted via Wi-Fi to the computer servers of ToyTalk. ToyTalk’s speech-recognition software then converted the audio signal into a text file, which could be analyzed and compared against a growing collection of thousands of lines of scripted responses for Barbie to provide back to the child – all in a matter of seconds. [3] The AI platform also allowed important questions to be flagged, so that the toy could remember the answers and use them for conversation starters days or weeks later. [4]

Mattel’s planned Barbie Hello Hologram projects a hologram image of the doll and allows children to talk directly to her. The toy can answer simple questions, be controlled by an app from a parent’s phone, and even change her looks – advancing Barbie’s engagement levels, but also allowing her to more closely reflect the identity of the child playing with her. [5]

Toys like Povi use machine learning to collect data and track content modules that children consume, their ability to talk about certain topics, and overall engagement level and listening skills, all of which factors into the toy’s evolution and adaptation over time to fit the child’s needs and skills levels. [6]  

Connected toys are likely to see continued growth, especially as the cost of technology decreases, with market analyst Juniper Research expecting the worldwide annual sales to grow from $2.8 billion in 2015 to $11.3 billion by 2020. [7]

Why It Matters

Connected toys raise issues of privacy and security, especially if the toys connect to the internet, transmit private information to third parties, or utilize machine learning or artificial intelligence to collect, store, and personalize information. In a world where an increasing number of devices are prone to hacking and privacy concerns – including devices made for monitoring children – connected toys may be one of several devices where parents and caregivers trade the risk of privacy for the convenience and benefit of technology. [8]

Subsequent iterations of the connected toys have worked to address privacy concerns, including the Hello Barbie Hologram, which Mattel says does not collect information to be stored on its servers and is compliant with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPA). [9]

Even if the toys minimize the risk of hacking, privacy advocates will continue to have concerns. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood noted Mattel’s Hello Barbie’s potential for “eavesdropping” that could collect information that could be used to exploit the intimate feelings of children. [10]  

Child development researchers have expressed concern that some connected toys that field pre-programmed questions to children could limit their imagination and curiosity, steering children toward rote answers that fit into an algorithm-generated script. [11]

Advocates for authentic play, including Stuart Brown and his National Institute for Play, emphasize the need for play activities that are done for no purpose other than play’s own sake and where the outcome is secondary to the experience. [12] Concerns over authentic play may subside as connected toys evolve and develop.   

Connected toys could also limit socialization. As these toys advance, they will likely improve to create stronger and stronger emotional bonds, developing into synthetic friendships that replace real human connections – they could even fall into a ‘‘domination model’’ relationship in which the child makes all the demands and receives all the rewards but feels no responsibility to the robot toy. [13]

Connected toys that build on expert knowledge platforms and other content structures could create more robust, educational, and evolving systems of interaction with children, forging stronger educational and developmental outcomes. If programmers support educational goals, connected toys could facilitate robust conversations that help children develop complex and evolving understandings of the world. [14]

Connected toys could allow parents and families to more closely monitor and involve themselves in children’s development, transmitting information that would allow parents to better understand the activities their children are engaged in and to build connections from play to parent-child discussions. 

Notes and Resources

[1] "Barbie wants to get to know your child." James Vlahos. The New York Times Magazine. September 16, 2015. Available from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/20/magazine/barbie-wants-to-get-to-know-your-child.html?_r=0

[2] "Are smart toys spying on kids and stealing their imagination?" Aviva Rutkin. New Scientist. October 4, 2016. Available from https://www.newscientist.com/article/2107918-are-smart-toys-spying-on-kids-and-stealing-their-imagination/

and

"The future of smart toys and the battle for digital children." Zoë Corbyn. The Guardian. September 22, 2016. Available from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/sep/22/digital-children-smart-toys-technology

[3] "Barbie wants to get to know your child." James Vlahos. The New York Times Magazine. September 16, 2015. Available from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/20/magazine/barbie-wants-to-get-to-know-your-child.html?_r=0

[4] " Barbie wants to get to know your child." James Vlahos. The New York Times Magazine. September 16, 2015. Available from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/20/magazine/barbie-wants-to-get-to-know-your-child.html?_r=0

[5] "A wi-fi Barbie doll with the soul of Siri." Natasha Singer. The New York Times. March 28, 2015. Available from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/29/technology/a-wi-fi-barbie-doll-with-the-soul-of-siri.html

[6] "This artificially intelligent toy helps children with their emotional development." Ido Lechner. PSFK. April 26, 2016. Available from https://www.psfk.com/2016/04/this-artificially-intelligent-toy-helps-children-with-their-emotional-development.html

[7] "The future of smart toys and the battle for digital children." Zoë Corbyn. The Guardian. September 22, 2016. Available from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/sep/22/digital-children-smart-toys-technology

[8] "Are smart toys spying on kids and stealing their imagination?" Aviva Rutkin. New Scientist. October 4, 2016. Available from https://www.newscientist.com/article/2107918-are-smart-toys-spying-on-kids-and-stealing-their-imagination/

[9] "Barbie Hello Hologram is a tiny virtual friend for girls." Kris Naudus. Engadget. February 19, 2017. Available from https://www.engadget.com/2017/02/19/barbie-hello-hologram/

[10] "A wi-fi Barbie doll with the soul of Siri." Natasha Singer. The New York Times. March 28, 2015. Available from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/29/technology/a-wi-fi-barbie-doll-with-the-soul-of-siri.html

[11] "Are smart toys spying on kids and stealing their imagination?" Aviva Rutkin. New Scientist. October 4, 2016. Available from https://www.newscientist.com/article/2107918-are-smart-toys-spying-on-kids-and-stealing-their-imagination/

and

"Barbie wants to get to know your child." James Vlahos. The New York Times Magazine. September 16, 2015. Available from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/20/magazine/barbie-wants-to-get-to-know-your-child.html?_r=0

[12] "The future of smart toys and the battle for digital children." Zoë Corbyn. The Guardian. September 22, 2016. Available from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/sep/22/digital-children-smart-toys-technology

[13] " Barbie wants to get to know your child." James Vlahos. The New York Times Magazine. September 16, 2015. Available from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/20/magazine/barbie-wants-to-get-to-know-your-child.html?_r=0

[14] " A wi-fi Barbie doll with the soul of Siri." Natasha Singer. The New York Times. March 28, 2015. Available from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/29/technology/a-wi-fi-barbie-doll-with-the-soul-of-siri.html