Toys becoming more lifelike Interactive: Dolls that walk, talk and respond to voices use complex chips to do simple things

December 07, 1998|By James Cummings | James Cummings,COX NEWS SERVICE

Imagine what would have happened if an interactive Barney doll had turned up in a household in the Middle Ages.

At the very least, his owners would have been burned at the stake for witchcraft.

There's something downright spooky about modern interactive toys. Though they are obviously not alive, many of the things they do look suspiciously lifelike.

They seem to see, hear and feel what's going on around them, and they seem to react to their environments in appropriate, reasonable, intelligent ways.

In the place of eyes, ears and other sensory organs, interactive toys use light, touch, motion, magnetic, infrared, radio and other sensors. Instead of mouths and muscles they have digital recordings, motors and plastic and metal skeletons. In place of brains they have chips.

And in place of intelligence, they have clever programming, which is the key to creating the illusion of life.

"If the toy isn't fun, if it isn't magical, then all the high-powered chips in the world won't make any difference," said Karn King, who works for a sound digitizing company. "You don't just stuff in the technology; you use the technology to make the toy pleasing to the child."

Dolls with eyes that close are a primitive example of interactive toys. The eyes are attached to weights, and when the doll is placed in a sleeping position, the weights pull the eyes into the appropriate sleeping status.

The sense organs of modern interactive toys tend to be much more sophisticated than simple weights, but the principle is the same.

Amazing Amy from Playmates is like a sleeping doll with a degree from technical school. She not only talks, she seems to know what she's talking about.

When the child first plays with the toy in the morning, Amazing Amy may ask for breakfast. If the child tries to give her a piece of plastic pizza that comes with the toy, Amazing Amy may say, "I like pizza but not for breakfast. How about cereal?"

The doll also can tell the difference between her play clothes and pajamas and will ask for the right outfit at the right time. Amazing Amy even knows when she's sick or needs a diaper change.

Ryan Slate of Playmates' marketing staff said Amazing Amy has play pieces such as food items and clothing that have built-in resistors.

Place the play piece against contact pads on the doll's body, and the doll's internal computer runs a signal through the play piece and recognizes the piece by the amount the signal is reduced.

Amazing Amy also uses touch sensors to tell when her nose is being blown or when she's being hugged.

Touch sensors are among the most common components in interactive toys. Touch sensors usually have some sort of springy material that holds two halves of a circuit apart. Squeeze the springy material, the circuit is completed, and the "brain" of the toy responds.

Actimates, a division of Microsoft, uses touch sensors in its popular interactive Barney and in the Arthur and D.W. dolls it introduced this year, according to Christine Winkel, an Actimates product manager.

Squeeze the hands or feet of the dolls and they talk or play games. They have vocabularies of thousands of situation-appropriate phrases.

The Arthur and D.W. figures, based on the Arthur characters' public television series, also have touch-sensitive watches. Children can touch the watches and the figures help them learn to tell time.

In addition to recorded speech, Barney, Arthur and D.W. all move their heads and arms in gestures that match what they're saying, Winkel said.

"They have a chassis of 740 different parts," Winkel said.

The Barney toy even has a light sensor, according to Winkel. Cover the toy's eyes and the absence of light triggers it to play peek-a-boo.

Motion and attitude sensors, which detect vertical or horizontal orientation, as well as touch sensors are important in toys like Tickle Me Elmo, according to King.

She said she knew people who designed the Elmo toy, and it took them a while to get the sensors right.

"With one of the first prototypes you really had to bang it hard to get it to activate," King said. "It was more like Thrash Me About Elmo.

"It was quite disturbing, actually."

King is marketing manager for Voxware Inc., a sound recording compression technology company in Princeton, N.J.

Though Voxware is not directly involved in toy manufacture, King said the technology of compressing lots of recorded sound for storage in a small space is critical to making a toy that can speak thousands of phrases.

"The old Speak and Spell toys had a crude plastic record inside," King said. "The technology in a modern speaking toy is more like the technology in a digital answering machine."

King said digital recordings are made by sampling every few milliseconds the sound vibrations that hit the microphone. The recorder, in effect, describes the sound energy hitting the microphone at any given instant as a series of numbers.

Getting dolls to talk is much easier than getting them to understand spoken speech, King said.

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