Archive for Thursday, December 14, 2000

Simple toys often the best

December 14, 2000


At night, the stories say, the dolls come alive.

Betsey Wetsey wets her pants and cries "Waaaa."

"Be my friend," intones Chatty Cathy.

"Be my friend," echoes Furby. "Waaaa."

Barbie pushes Teddy Ruxpin's buttons till he sings a song tape.

My Programmable BabyBot screws its pliable face into Expression 269P, a puffy-lipped pout. "Would you keep it down, guys? I've been chit-chatting all day with Little Humanoid and I need my crib time. My personality matrix is hitting overload."

Robotic dollies are the "worst toy idea of the year," charges the Alliance for Childhood, a group of educators, health professionals and parents who think kids need less tech, more play.

"Smart" dolls are a stupid idea, says the Alliance, because they channel children's creativity. A little girl with a Raggedy Ann will decide what to play and what to say, making up both sides of the conversation.

BabyBot is programmed to play in a certain way. Nothing is left to the imagination.

Hasbro's My Real Baby, Playmates' Amazing Babies and MGA's My Dream Baby, which grows from newborn to toddler, make the Alliance's smart doll/foolish choice list. Santa will spend just under $100 to put one of these robo-dolls under the tree.

Also in the works is Mattel's Miracle Moves Baby, designed by Caleb Chung, father of the language-learning Furby.

For boys, there are talking cars, trucks and trains. No need to make vroom-vroom noises for these conversing vehicles.

Alliance also dislikes these false robo-friends, citing Hasbro's Tonka Electronic Chuck My Talking Firetruck, "an interactive truck pal with a puppy-like personality," and especially My Barney, which can be programmed to mention the child's birthday, eye and hair color, favorite food and best friend. MGA's Me and My Shadow and Trendmasters' WuvLuvs 2 also make the list.

Man's best e-friend also is on sale. Last year, Sony's $2,500 robo-dog, Aibo, was a big hit. This year, a puppybot can be bought for less than $100.

Talking dolls are nothing new, of course. But the new robo-dolls are much more realistic in their speech, movement and interactive abilities than the Chatty Cathys of yore. They mimic a living, thinking, feeling, nurture-needing being.

But they're not.

"After slowly opening her eyes, My Real Baby starts to coo, and soon she wants her bottle," writes Erik Davis in "Congratulations, It's a Bot" in the September 2000 Wired. "When I pull the bottle out, her demeanor changes, as if she is deciding whether or not she's still hungry...the doll is studded with a subdermal array of sensors, including six touch sensors and two multiplexed orientation sensors that let her know what's happening to her body."

The doll manipulates the child, writes Davis. "The whole complex circuit a combination of sensors, processing, and internal emotional models is designed to trigger the nurturing play of little girls."

Little girls like the dolls, Davis reports. Adults see near-human dollbots as, well, creepy. Interviewees kept bringing up the demonic "Chucky" doll from the "Child's Play" movie.

Alliance warns kids may get confused about what's real and what's mechanical or electronic. They may think My Real Baby is really a baby.

I suspect kiddies are harder to fool than that. But I do worry that interaction with a smart doll will substitute for interaction with a live playmate or parent.

Already, TV is the electronic babysitter in many homes. Do we really want children playing with electronic friends? Kids are so programmed these days. Do we want their toys to be programmed too?

Alliance recommends giving children toys that encourage activity and creativity: Wagons, balls, scooters, tumbling mats, and building blocks; song books and story books for parents and kids to share; dress-up clothes and homemade first aid kits. Or even that classic favorite of toddlers: an empty cardboard box.

Alliance for Childhood may worry too much. Kids will be kids even if dolls will be robots.

But they're right to remind us to keep it simple and cheap.

I once scoured the toy stores to find a Little Miss Make-up for my little miss, who was ecstatic for 15 minutes and never played with the doll again. Teddy Ruxpin's charm lasted a bit longer but soon faded.

My daughter's favorite was a plastic no-tech baby doll she creatively named Baby Doll. Baby Doll didn't talk, walk, move or play music. It didn't do anything at all. It was done to: pushed in a toy stroller, tucked into a sleep basket, dressed in jammies, undressed, sung to and fussed over. Durable, if a bit grimy, Baby Doll was cherished while more gimmicky dolls slumped on the shelf.

What the dolls talked about at night I don't know. But I'll bet Baby Doll was the life of the party.

Joanne Jacobs is a member of the San Jose Mercury News editorial board.

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