Speech Technology Magazine


Toys that Talk to Kids

Toymakers are increasingly incorporating speech technology into their dinosaurs, robots, unicorns, and the like
By Jean Thilmany - Posted Dec 17, 2018
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Talk to the Animals

// Dino //

CogniToys Dino connects over WiFi to a server that taps into IBM Watson, which understands kids’ questions and answer them aloud in a male’s low voice. Watson sifts through a vast amount of information to present the most relevant bits and can tailor its answers to a child’s age, according to Elemental Path, the toy’s creator. 

The start-up company funded its first Dino’s toys through a Kickstarter campaign and has an interesting story: The company founders entered and won the IBM Watson Mobile App Developer Challenge, by pitching the concept of a toy that could learn and grow with a child. 

“Out of hundreds of companies we were honored with the title of Grand Prize Winners in the challenge,” says Donald Coolidge, an Elemental Path cofounder. (JP Benini and Arthur Tu are the other founders.) Winners of the challenge received access to IBM Watson, which is “one of the elements necessary to create a truly transformational toy,” Coolidge says.

“Prioritizing safety, the smart toy’s microphone is muted by default,” he stresses. Other Wi-Fi-connected and voice-enabled toys have met with pushback from parents and children’s safety groups who feared the toys could store information it “hears” from children and their family and that hackers could gain access to that information. To talk to the foot-high, rubber dinosaur toy, a child holds down its belly button until she is finished speaking and lets it go to hear the response.

The company offers this example of how a child’s conversation with Dino might go: A child asks Dino, “How far away is the moon?” Dino will vary the complexity of its answer based on the child’s age (which parents specify in an app). To a 5-year-old posing that question, Dino would say, “It is really far. Too far to walk!” To a 9-year-old, it would reply, “The moon is 238,900 miles away, and it moves farther away each year.”

The Robotic Guard Dog

// Aibo //

Carnegie Mellon University added Aibo, a robotic pet from Sony, into its Robot Hall of Fame in 2006, the year Sony stopped making the toy. Many Americans recognize the dog—either they had one, a friend or family member had one, or they saw an Aibo on television. 

Now Aibo is back. This year, Sony released its fourth-generation Aibo, model ERS-1000, to the Japanese market. While the robotic dog now sells at the steep price of $2,988, it includes many new, sophisticated features its ancestors lacked. The new Aibo can respond to voice commands, but rather than be limited to “sit” or “play dead,” Aibo owners can tell their robotic dog to “take a picture and text it to me,” which it can do using a Wi-Fi connection and the camera behind its eyes.

Tuning into Kid Talk

// Soapbox Labs //

Though our last entry isn’t a toy, toys equipped with this technology can more precisely recognize the speech of the children who own them. This helps alleviate frustration if their playthings don’t exactly get what they’re trying to say.

Dublin start-up Soapbox Labs has developed a speech recognition solution specifically for children’s voices to ensure the highest accuracy possible. The software uses a machine learning algorithm to help better predict and identify a child’s language over time. It’s cued into a child’s tendency to shout instructions, says Patricia Scanlon, Soapbox’s chief executive officer.

Soapbox collected many children’s voices and speech patterns and used them to create algorithms and speech models customized for children, she says.

Soapbox knows what we all know: Whether for educational or entertainment purposes, companies are looking to incorporate children’s speech recognition capabilities into their products. So we can expect to see kids conversing with robots, dinosaurs, and unicorns well into the future.