Ubooly is demoing on stage at Disney’s Accelerator Demo Day, but it’s not the company it was when it entered the program. The startup has renamed itself to “Smart Toy,” which better encompasses its vision of interactive toys with computing intelligence beyond just its initial product, which was also called Ubooly. But it’s also no longer a startup – or at least, not one operating solo. The company was acquired by Cartwheel Kids, an 18-month old venture founded by a group of top talent from Disney and elsewhere that has had great early success creating dress-up and costume-based toys licensed from existing kids brands.
The original Ubooly was a crowdfunded toy, which was plush and huggable, but which could also house an iPhone or iPod touch within to give it not just a face, but a whole computer-driven intelligence. This allowed for personalized, interactive play with a child using it, and since the platform was app-based, it could grow and “learn” new tricks through updates and downloadable content.
The new vision includes a range of smart toys, and Smart Toy co-founder and CEO Carly Gloge explained to me that the price pressure on components also means they’ll be able to build the smart hardware right into the toys while keeping things affordable, eliminating the need for an iPhone or iPad, and freeing up those gadgets to interact with the toys in new and innovative ways.
One of the perceived advantages of the original Ubooly was its animated face which was displayed on your iPhone’s screen, but Gloge says that despite what they thought, it wasn’t that integral to the overall experience.
“Only one kid out of a group of thirty actually noticed that it wasn’t animated,” she said, talking about the prototypes of the new toys. “Kids really don’t care because they’re filling in those details. We tried to start doing things with animating, but it increased the cost, and you ran into uncanny valley issues […] also, a lot of parents don’t want another screen in front of their kids.”
The new toys can recognize other screens, so if you’re playing a game on your iPhone or iPad, and the toy’s nearby, it can provide helpful hints. In this way, the toys can become second-screen experiences, deepening interaction on the tablets and devices that so many kids these days are using anyways. The key is that the tech angle is invisible, and that it works, Gloge says. This is something borrowed from Apple, but it’s important in creating any kind of tech, where anyone beyond the early adopter crowd just wants something to work right away.
“Consumers don’t care about technology, especially parents – they care about it feeling magical,” she said. “If you truly look at it, toys have not really innovated since the eighties. The nineties were a bit of a ‘dark ages’ for toys. The toy industry moved away from inventors, and tried to do everything in-house. What it’s going to take is these small, scrappy companies to make things interesting again.”
The smarts that Smart Toy is building into its products are also a new kind of intelligent, with software that’s cloud-based and constantly improving, and that can truly interact with and respond to its users in a meaningful way. Cloud connection also means that these can be contextually-aware devices – they can work with other smart home elements, like the Phlips Hue lighting system. Gloge says future versions could adjust lighting while reading a story to a child to set the right mood, for instance.
New owner Cartwheel Kids explained that Smart Toy made sense for them as an acquisition because they felt the toy industry was ripe for innovation, according to SVP of Sales and Marketing Sunny Laurisden, who also said that their focus on a solid end-user experience above all else was key. For Smart Toy, the acquisition was on the table alongside raising further funding, but Cartwheel’s ability to provide the resources needed for mass production and distribution of a new toy won out.
The new toys are set to make their official debut at this year’s CES, and feature embedded accelerometer, NFC, 8GB SSD and Wi-Fi chip hardware, as well as a speaker and microphone.