[Paleopsych] NYT: A Doll That Can Recognize Voices, Identify Objects and Show Emotion
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Sun Aug 28 20:04:39 UTC 2005
A Doll That Can Recognize Voices, Identify Objects and Show Emotion
By MICHEL MARRIOTT
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
"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 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 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
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
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.
"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
"This doll," Ms. Shackelford said, "acts like she loves you."
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