Though some adults still feel awkward about having conversations with their smartphone’s mobile assistant, like Siri, kids today seem to have no qualms about chattering with our virtual helpers. My daughter, for example, thinks of Siri as just another one of iPad’s toys. She also regularly instructs me to “ask Google” for the answer, and hits up our smart speaker Amazon Echo for new jokes, courtesy of its assistant Alexa.
San Francisco-based kids’ entertainment startup ToyTalk, founded by former Pixar execs, has been tapping into this trend of kids having conversations with virtual entities through a suite of mobile apps featuring animated characters they can talk to. Now the company is debuting the first product to result from its partnership with toy company Mattel, with an app that lets kids chat with one of Mattel’s better-known characters, Thomas the Tank Engine.
The iOS app, which arrives in time for Thomas the Tank Engine’s 70th anniversary, allows children to have two-way conversations with both him and his friends, Percy, Emily, James, Gordon, Toby and Sir Topham Hatt, on eight journeys through the “Island of Sodor.”
The first story in the app is free, then each of the five additional episodes are available as in-app purchases of $0.99 apiece or $3.99 for the bundle. There are also two bonus episodes that are unlocked after kids complete the first six, bringing the total to eight.
In the stories, kids are presented with activities that encourage conversations, while also learning shapes, playing memory games, singing, telling stories, solving mysteries, making silly noises and more.
The “Thomas & Friends Talk To You” app works similarly to those ToyTalk has already produced, which so far have served to be more representative of what the company’s technology is capable of, rather than becoming a large kids’ entertainment business in and of themselves. Those apps, like SpeakaZoo, The Winston Show and SpeakaLegend, for example, are not household names, but offer clever stories where kids talk to fantastical characters who both initiate conversations and respond to questions.
To make this possible, ToyTalk has developed interesting conversational technology that’s specifically designed for use with littler kids. This is no small feat.
The company was founded by former Pixar CTO Oren Jacob, who worked on films like Toy Story (1 & 2), A Bug’s Life, and Finding Nemo, along with Martin Reddy, previously of Siri’s birthplace, SRI as well as Pixar. In order for the characters to respond, ToyTalk’s apps have to use a combination of speech recognition technology, natural language processing, and a little AI to make things work.
This can be challenging, as children’s voices are more difficult to understand than adults. Not to mention, they tend to go off-script and say some pretty crazy things. To be fair, I’ve seen ToyTalk’s apps stumble when my kid threw them for a loop with unexpected responses. They are programmed to understand positive and negative answers, and then reply accordingly, but they don’t know quite what to do when the kid veers off in an unforeseen direction…as kids do.
That being said, my child still regularly played with the apps and was very forgiving of their mistakes. After all, they were much more fun than Siri, as it turned out.
However, because of consumers’ heightened fears over technology’s invasiveness, ToyTalk recently faced a petition from a consumer protection agency who misunderstood the fine line between voice recognition and “eavesdropping.” A group called the Coalition for a Commercial Free Childhood asked toymaker Mattel to halt production on its upcoming doll, Hello Barbie, that will be powered by ToyTalk technology.
The company responded that its apps were not eavesdropping – in fact, kids had to push a button, as if on a walkie-talkie, to engage in the conversations. And it said the data it collected was not being used for advertising or marketing, but rather R&D purposes.
Today, with the release of its Thomas & Friends Talk To You app, the company states that it is COPPA-compliant and kidSAFE-certified in order to further downplay those fears.
The new app is actually the first of several products that will be put out jointly by Mattel and ToyTalk, including the forthcoming Hello Barbie which is still due to arrive in a couple of weeks.
The app will be live on iTunes today and will launch on Android at a later point.