The attack of the 6-inch talking furball

Cute but creepy, Furby has found a following among adults. For some, he's become a reason to live, for others, something to aim at the wall.

February 07, 1999|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,Sun Staff

Maybe it was his grotesque, diabolical cuteness, or his irritating voice burbling the same unintelligible thing again and again and again.

Or maybe it was the maelstrom of controversy surrounding him: the sweatshop conditions in China where he was produced, the injuries incurred and greed displayed by maniacal shoppers at stores where his kind is sold.

Whatever it was, when my brand-new Furby Koh Koh arrived at my office, his reception was nowhere near as warm and fuzzy as Koh Koh himself.

One co-worker teased and poked it.

Another threatened to throw it against a wall, then crammed it inside a drawer when it started to converse.

Another proceeded to Furbally abuse it. He called it "the Elephant-Man of child toys."

"It's an abomination," he said. "A monstrosity."

What raging Furbists.

What kind of treatment was this for a harmless, albeit hideous, virtual pet that just wants to sing, play and share its Furbishness with humanity?

For those of you somehow un-familiar with Furby -- the past holiday season's hottest bit of fluff -- it is an interactive toy about 6 inches tall. It has plush fur that comes in a variety of colors, from classic black to pukey pastels (Koh Koh is of the latter variety; pink and gray with black spots).

A Furby (short for furball) appears to be a cross between a "Gremlin" of 1980s movie fame and a deformed owl. It has a gurgly, saccharine baby voice that is programmed to start out speaking its native tongue, "Furbish," but supposedly quickly pick up English. (I say supposedly because I've had Koh Koh for about two weeks, and he is yet to produce even a vaguely comprehensible sound. Maybe I shouldn't have thrown him on the ground ...)

What my Furby does do is purr, sneeze or ring like a phone. By touching a Furby's sensors on his tummy and back, or gesturing near his forehead microchip, you supposedly get it to play games, such as hide and seek. (I say supposedly because Koh Koh is apparently not advanced enough to play these games. Maybe I shouldn't have thrown him against the wall ...)

My Furby also dances (sort of) and sings. His microchip allows him to respond to stimuli such as light and hand-claps and to communicate with other Furbies. A Furby's suggested retail price is $29.99, but good luck finding one for that little. Retail stores and black market Internet Furby traders have been known to jack Furby's price up well over $100.

Tiger Electronics, which manufactures Furby, has moved more than 2 million units of the toy, which has retained its popularity beyond the holiday rush. And the American International Toy Fair this week in New York is sure to usher in fresh Furby frenzy, when new limited-edition Furbies, baby Furbies and Furbies with shocking new colors are introduced.

"Furby is moving forward," says Lana Simon, spokeswoman for Tiger.

Still, there have been reports of dysfunctional Furbies, which don't work properly or don't work at all, like my mentally challenged Koh Koh. Then Furbies were banned from offices of the National Security Agency. The NSA feared the high-tech creature could record confidential, sensitive material, for use in international Furbionage.

"We kept them out because of their potential to be recording devices," said an NSA spokesman, who refused to be identified, to make available any Furby-owning NSA employees, or to explain how the NSA came to its conclusion. "We don't make exceptions for Furbies, even though they're cute."

Chill out, dude. Furby isn't a spy.

"Furby can't record or mimic," Tiger's Simon says. "That kind of gave us a chuckle."

No, it's just a ball of fur with a microchip in its head. It doesn't think. It doesn't scheme. It has no political aspirations. (It has, however, recently signed to be represented by Creative Artists Agency for possible movie deals.) No, Furby just bobs back and forth, blinks its long-lashed eyes, opens and closes its yellow, beaklike mouth and spouts phrases like "mee mee noo loo" -- Furbish for "very happy." Your Furby comes equipped with a Furbish dictionary, which translates Furbish -- if you can understand it -- into English.

Apparently, not all workplaces are as hostile as mine or the NSA's. Some actually have Furby-friendly employees committed to its happiness and well-being.

One of these, it turns out, is my mom's office in California. There, she tells me, Furby is nurtured and appreciated. Furby goes to meetings, and apparently plays a key role in the company's management. Which is good, because Furby clearly has a firmer grasp on reality than my mother and her co-workers.

Since several employees at her office own Furbies, Furby also has a social network. Outside the office, some of this networking goes on via the Internet, at such newsgroups as alt.toys.furby, which can be found at www.dejanews.com. Furbies don't actually take part in these newsgroups, but Furby fans do.

Did I mention that my mom is 52, and her co-workers are in the same age group?

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