Interactive Smart Toys: Delightful Or Demonic?

Photo courtesy of Mike Licht via Flickr, modified by Curiousmatic. 

Roll aside bouncy balls and and step off dolls: smart toys are officially in town. Just how smart they are, however, is still a subject of debate.

You may or may not have caught wind of wi-fi barbie, a doll capable of processing speech (over a cloud-based server) and responding to kids’ queries, not unlike Siri for children.

“Hello Barbie” is just the latest, and perhaps the most advanced, of high-tech toys that have some parents on edge.

Though many kids are keen to play with blocks and boxes, toys and electronics industries have been teaming up for some time to bring cutting edge software from the shelves to tiny hands.

What is a smart toy?

The term “smart toy” typically describes children’s toys of a technologically interactive nature. By virtue of on-board electronics, smart toys may take on a sort of digital intelligence, altering their behavior to respond to environmental stimuli.

For an example of a smart toy frontrunner, look no further than the Furby. Many late 90s children (and parents) will remember well the furry, bug-eyed, beaked creature, over 40 million of which were sold in its first three years, making it the first massively successful domestic-aimed robot.

Furby began speaking “Furbish,” and learned English over time (or one of 23 other languages). It may sound innocuous, but the NSA actually banned the Furby in 1999 over fears it would record and repeat classified information — even though it wasn’t programmed to do so.

That was over 15 years ago, and advanced for its time. Today, no one smart toy has rivalled that of the Furby in terms of popularity, but on a whole, toys are getting smarter and more advanced.

Electronic toys, trending up

A 2014 report (pdf) by the Michael Cohen Group found that touch screens dominated play type over all other types of games, especially as the percentage of children living with smart devices rose from 52 to 75 percent since 2011.

This affinity of kids have toward touch screens and electronics has opened doors for toy designers, who are incorporating elements of digital intelligence into children’s toys.

These include:

Toys that connect to your phone: Smartphone or tablet friendly require a smartphone as a key component. For example, Ubooly and RoboMe use smartphones as a face activated by apps, and Sphero 2.0 lets you control a ball and augment reality scenes on the device with fantasy images.

Toys that encourage electronic building: Lego Mindstorms EV3 and littlebits are both building sets that allow kids to easily and quickly build functional electronics.

Toys that talk back and learn: Hello Barbie, which will be released in the Fall of 2015, carries conversation with kids via wifi and voice recognition, storing data and remembering responses.

Then there’s CogniToys, which will be selling a huggable dinosaur connected to IBM’s supercomputer Watson. Kids can ask the toy questions, and the toy will provide age appropriate responses or tell them to ask their parent.


If the Furby was thought creepy — by both kids, parents, and the NSA — it makes sense that there would be backlash to the newest class of smart toys.

Older criticisms of such toys still stand today, as educators and cognitive scientists emphasize that smart toys may have limited play value, entertaining kids rather than stimulating their imagination — and thusly not very smart at all.

The novelty of smart toys may also wear off faster than building blocks, boxes, and other toys with high “play quotients,” making them a waste of the parent’s investment.

Others worry that interactive smart toys will in some ways replace physical interactions and play essential to development, like parenting and playmates.

As for Hello Barbie, privacy advocates worry that the doll will be used for stealth advertising purposes, or to collect and report data that infringes on a child’s privacy. Some are even petitioning its release.

The takeaway

As technology works its way into child play, concerns over its impact may be valid. Toy companies will need to draw the line somewhere, carefully consider educational value, and develop policies that can dilute the creepy factor.

Though studies show traditional “retro” toys may indeed be healthier for children on a whole, adding smart toys into the mix could represent more promise than peril: smart toys allow children to get a grasp on concepts like connectivity and software sooner, giving them a head start adapting to a changing world.

We measure success by the amount of understanding we deliver. If you could express it as a percentage, how much fresh understanding did we provide?
Jennifer Markert