Two years ago, Oren Jacob left his role as CTO at Pixar after working at the studio for over 20 years. After a brief stint as Entrepreneur In Residence at August Capital, he announced that he was off to start his own company: ToyTalk.
ToyTalk has kept their projects mostly under wraps.. until now. Before today, most of what we knew about the company could be gathered from its name: they’d be making toys, and those toys would talk.
Today, the company is debuting its first product: The Winston Show, an iPad game for young kids.
Now, calling The Winston Show a “game” might be a bit of a misnomer. It’s… not quite a game, in that it doesn’t really fit into any of the normal genres. It’s part trivia game, part comedy routine, and part… I don’t know, educational tv show? According to Oren, even ToyTalk wasn’t quite sure what to call it — though in the end, they’ve gone with calling it a “show”.
The best example I can think of would be to mash up Dora The Explorer and You Don’t Know Jack into some sort of quirky, witty, kid-friendly hybrid. In fact, Dora (and other shows like it) was a source of inspiration for The Winston Show. Oren saw how kids — particularly those around 6 or 7 years old — would actually talk to characters like Dora, or Blue’s Clues Steve, shouting answers to their questions back at a deaf TV. If only those characters could actually listen! And respond!
Thus, The Winston Show.
The Winston Show is an iPad
game show that asks questions and, through a pinch of cloud-based voice recognition voodoo and a handful of really hardcore technology on ToyTalk’s end, listens and responds to what you say. It stars Winston, the show’s namesake…. chubby, yellow monster thing, and his companion Ellington, a lil’ orange blob that speaks only in bloops and bears a striking resemblance to the company’s logo.
The Winston Show has a handful of different mini-games (or ‘skits’, as ToyTalk calls them), each with its own style of dialogue. In “Writer’s Room”, Winston reads a story, breaking at the end of each passage with a set of choices on how to proceed — a Choose Your Own adventure, of sorts. In “You Vs.”, kids face off against a range of opponents (from historical figures like Marie Antoinette to the more unexpected guests, like a Mosquito) in a quick lesson cleverly disguised as a trivia game.
Other skits, meanwhile, get a bit more conversational and open-ended; Winston might ask a kid what their favorite type of ball is, with ToyTalk having prepped clever retorts or bits of trivia for every type of ball they could think of internally.
And if Winston doesn’t have an appropriate response? He falls back to something generic (“Kind of like when you’re in a loud bar and you didn’t hear what someone said but you want the conversation to keep going, so you just smile and nod,” as they put it) — but on ToyTalk’s backend, that missed answer is noted. If enough kids all say that same answer, ToyTalk knows that they’ve missed something they shouldn’t have, and will record new response dialogue accordingly. All in all, they’ve recorded around 3,000 lines of dialogue.
Almost everything in the game — from the scenes, to the animations, to the audio response — are streamed in from the cloud, allowing ToyTalk to add new content on the fly. Building the technology that allowed for that (and the tools to create and package the content) took up a pretty good chunk of ToyTalk’s stealthy last few years, but should lead to the company grabbing at least a couple pretty intense patents. Looks like they’ve got at least one already.
Likewise, all voice responses are uploaded to and processed in the cloud (Curiously, ToyTalk declined to tell me who was powering their voice recognition). The downside, there: it requires an internet connection at all times, be it WiFi, 3G, or 4G.
Of course, the game isn’t capturing audio at all times while running — instead, it waits until the kid presses an on-screen microphone button. This was done for multiple reasons: it’s more bandwidth-friendly, a whole lot easier to parse, and it allows multiple kids in front of one iPad to talk to each other before deciding on a response. It’s also less of a privacy risk, as it’s less likely to record things that aren’t meant to be recorded.
Speaking of privacy, it’s something that ToyTalk is taking pretty seriously. Kids need their parents to sign them up for an account before they can play, and the company put a bunch of effort into ensuring that they’re fully COPPA compliant. If a parent ever wants to delete all of a child’s data from ToyTalk’s servers, it’s one button away.
For the curious: Oren isn’t the only Pixar alum at ToyTalk. His Cofounder, Martin Reddy, led Pixar’s software development teams on nearly half a dozen flicks, from Finding Nemo to WALL-E. By their estimates, about a third of ToyTalk’s 20+ employees are ex-Pixarians. (Is Pixarians the right term? Hell if I know. The Internet says yes!)
If you recall, ToyTalk released a teaser video around the end of last year that pretty strongly suggested that they’d be doing something that combined physical toys (like a stuffed animal) and a webcam into some sort of mysterious augmented reality experience. For now, at least, it looks like they’re focusing entirely on software, removing the physical toy from the mix.
While it may seem a bit strange to encourage kids to talk to characters on an iPad (as opposed to, say, going outside), it’s better than encouraging them to sit quietly in the corner and fling birds all day. Winston Show tries to get kids to emote, and be creative, and maybe learn a thing or two (Did you know that a female cat is called a queen? Because I learned that today. THANKS WINSTON, YOU MY BRO.)
But do kids actually want to talk with characters on their iPad? That’s something that ToyTalk is still trying to figure out. To help them work that out, The Winston Show and the content it launches with will be free indefinitely, with the potential to add new, premium content down the road.
ToyTalk has raised around $16M to date, with investment from Charles River Ventures, Greylock, True Ventures, First Round Capital, and a bunch of angel investors.
You can find The Winston Show on the iOS App Store here.