[Paleopsych] NYT: A Doll That Can Recognize Voices, Identify Objects and Show Emotion

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Sun Aug 28 20:04:39 UTC 2005

A Doll That Can Recognize Voices, Identify Objects and Show Emotion


    Judy Shackelford, who has been in the toy industry for more than 40
    years, has seen a lot of dolls. But none, she says, like her latest
    creation, a marvel of digital technologies, including
    speech-recognition and memory chips, radio frequency tags and
    scanners, and facial robotics. She and her team have christened it
    Amazing Amanda.

    "The toy industry is sort of like 'MacGyver,' " Ms. Shackelford said,
    invoking the problem-solving 1980's television hero. "You're always
    doing workarounds, figuring out how to rearrange the old in some new
    way to create something new. And you've got to do it for nickels and
    dimes and quarters."

    She then turned to the doll seated on her lap. "Hi, honey," Ms.
    Shackelford said gently to Amazing Amanda, a blond, blue-eyed figure
    bearing more than a remote likeness to its creator.

    "Hello, my name is Amanda," the doll replied as Ms. Shackelford smiled
    warmly at its rosy face. "We're going to have the best time together,"
    the doll promised.

    Amazing Amanda, scheduled for release next month by Playmates Toys, is
    expected to cost $99, said Ms. Shackelford, the chief executive of J.
    Shackelford & Associates, a product and marketing company in Moorpark,
    Calif., that specializes in toys and children's entertainment.

    At that price, the same as Apple's entry-level [4]iPod Shuffle digital
    music player, the 18-inch-tall doll promises - right on the box it
    will be sold in - to "listen, speak and show emotion." Some analysts
    and buyers who have seen Amanda say it represents an evolutionary leap
    from earlier talking dolls like Chatty Cathy of the 1960's, a doll
    that cycled through a collection of recorded phrases when a child
    pulled a cord in its back.

    Radio frequency tags in Amanda's accessories - including toy food,
    potty and clothing - wirelessly inform the doll of what it is
    interacting with. For instance, if the doll asks for a spoon of peas
    and it is given its plastic cookie, it will gently admonish its
    caregiver, telling her that a cookie is not peas.

    While $99 is a premium price for a doll, it is only about $10 more
    than the price of the popular American Girl dolls. And, Ms.
    Shackelford said, Amanda may prove that girls as well as boys can
    embrace technology in their toys.

    While video games and interactive robots, like Wow Wee's Robosapien,
    have long been successful in capturing the imaginations and buying
    power of preteenage and adolescent boys, a different assumption has
    been made about what girls want, analysts say.

    Part of the popularity of low-tech dolls like [5]Mattel's Chatty Cathy
    and Barbie, and more recent additions like Bratz (from MGA
    Entertainment) and the American Girl dolls (a line acquired by
    Mattel), has been that they allowed young girls to use their
    imagination, said David Riley, a senior manager at the NPD Group, a
    market research firm.

    "I think girls have more active imaginations than boys do when it
    comes to play," Mr. Riley noted. "If girls have a button on their doll
    and can feel an engine inside it, that takes away from their ability
    to imagine."

    He said that from what he knows of Amazing Amanda, Ms. Shackelford and
    her company appear to have overcome such problems, noting that Amanda
    appears to be more doll than robot.

    Mr. Riley added that the $20 billion toy industry has faltered in
    recent years as children's tastes and styles of play have changed. Toy
    spending has been widely seen as migrating to consumer electronics.
    Children are increasingly craving devices their parents want, many
    analysts say, like cellphones, digital cameras and portable digital
    music players.

    One way to counter that trend, Ms. Shackelford said, is a meaningful
    integration of advanced technologies into traditional toys, like
    dolls. "You've got to get out of the mind dodge," she said. "You have
    to push the envelope."

    Ms. Shackelford has been testing limits since she joined Mattel in
    1976 as manager of preschool marketing. Three years later she became
    the highest-ranking woman in the American toy industry when she was
    named a Mattel vice president, the first woman to reach that rank.
    Credited with reviving the Barbie line of dolls and toys in the late
    1970's, she left Mattel in 1986 to establish her own company.

    There, Ms. Shackelford created a series of doll lines, including other
    Amazing dolls - Amy, Ally, Maddie, Ashley and Baby - that all
    incorporated electronics so they could virtually "know" things like
    when to wake up, and a child's birthday and favorite holidays.

    And now she is trying a new frontier with Amazing Amanda, convinced
    that it will stoke a girl's imagination, not take its place.

    One prerelease model of Amazing Amanda, once it was activated (by
    flipping the toy's only visible switch hidden high on its back and
    beneath its clothing), woke with a yawn, slowly opened its eyes and
    started asking questions in a cutesy, almost cartoonlike girl's voice.

    What the doll is actually doing, Ms. Shackelford said, is "voice
    printing" the primary user's voice pattern. By asking a child to
    repeat "Amanda" several times, the doll quickly comes to recognize and
    store in its electronic memory that child's voice, and only that
    child's voice, as its "mommy." Other voices are greeted with Amanda's
    cautionary proclamation, "You don't sound like Mommy."

    In all, Ms. Shackelford said, the doll is equipped for almost an hour
    of speech that includes various questions, programmed responses,
    requests, songs and games. And as Amanda speaks, the doll's
    soft-plastic lips move and its face, using Disney-like animatronics,
    help to suggest expressions.

    For instance, when Amazing Amanda plays a game called funny face, she
    asks if you would like to see a happy face or a sad one. If you answer
    "funny face," the doll's eyes brighten and she looks as if she is
    smiling. If Amanda is asked to make a sad one, her lower lip protrudes
    as her lids lower. She might even ask if you would like to see her
    cry, responding to "yes" or "no."

    "The speech-recognition chip running in Amazing Amanda acts not only
    as speech recognition, but also allows her to talk," said Todd Mozer,
    chief executive of Sensory, a speech-technology company in Santa
    Clara, Calif., that developed the chip used in the doll. He noted that
    the technology could interpret a range of languages and dialects.

    Sensory executives said that was vitally important to Ms. Shackelford,
    whose new doll is one of the first products to use the new speech

    Ms. Shackelford said the chip's multidialect capacities are important
    for her doll, which is being manufactured in China to be sold to
    English-speaking markets around the world. The chip, explained Adam
    Anderson, one of the lead project managers, carries additional dialect
    references gleaned from children's voices recorded in England,
    Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.

    And by asking children to repeat words like "pizza," the doll can lock
    in specific dialects, "remember" and respond accordingly, Mr. Anderson

    Some 150 pages of logic programmed into Amanda help guide children
    through activities as if journeying through verbal mazes, Ms.
    Shackelford said.

    "The idea that a child can be led through play, that it can be done
    intuitively, is so important to me," she said, adding that her doll's
    sophisticated technologies must be invisible.

    "We don't want to make kids scared of technology," said Ms.
    Shackelford, who says she is in her mid-60's and has no children of
    her own. "You have a baby doll that is supposed to make a little girl
    feel like the doll loves her. Girls tell dolls all the time that they
    love them.

    "This doll," Ms. Shackelford said, "acts like she loves you."



More information about the paleopsych mailing list