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Hello Barbie Doll

New York Times reporter Natasha Singer had an excellent story (via Lisa Grimm) on Mattel’s soon-to-be-released Hello Barbie doll.

The new toy will be WiFi-enabled and featured voice recognition technology that will allow children to have in-depth conversations with the doll. The product is fascinating for a whole host of reasons, some of which I discussed on this week’s Beyond Social Media Show podcast:

The technology was developed by ToyTalk, a company that cut it’s voice-recognition chops on mobile apps for children that allow them to hold conversations with make believe characters, like The Winston Show:

Hello Barbie is an example of an “Internet of Things” toy. The toy combines a WiFi Internet connection with ToyTalk’s voice recognition technology and data processing in the cloud. Here’s a demonstration of the toy:

This story fascinates me because there are so many implications to consider; here are six things to think about:

1) Privacy Of Hello Barbie Conversations

I mentioned this on the show and Mattel is certainly cognizant of the privacy implications the toy raises and the concerns parents and others will have. Parents must give permission for children under 13 to use the doll and confirm that permission via email. The toy works like a walkie-talkie in that children must press a microphone button in order to activate the voice recognition technology, so it isn’t always on record. Parents will have access to the recordings and will have the ability to delete them.

That’s all fine and well but we’ve seen data breach after data breach suffered by major companies with presumably robust security technology in place and yet still, customer’s private data goes public.

2) Personalization Of Hello Barbie

Hello Barbie will come with a massive story out of the box and branching conversational software models that will learn, and therefore become personalized, to the individual child owner. The technology allows the toy to “remember” a child’s responses and therefore remember likes and dislikes so it can tailor future responses appropriately.

That personalization will make for a very compelling toy that will be slow to lose its appeal.

3) Hello Barbie Play Analytics

Mattel will literally have its ear to the ground to hear directly how children play with their product. The insight they’ll gain from the conversations children have with the toy will be invaluable and will likely lead to new product lines.

If they discover that certain topics dominate kids’ conversations with Hello Barbie, I imagine they’d be quick to develop a talking Barbie along those themes.

4) Hello Barbie Stealth Advertising

There will no doubt be plenty of watchdogs out there keeping an eye on whether or not Mattel tries to turn the doll into its own personal advertising platform but I suspect they’re smart enough not to clumsy as to insert ads into children’s conversations. But what if Hello Barbie starts referring to her sister, who, surprise, eventually turns out to be a new Hello Barbie model? Is that advertising or simply her back story?

5) Hello Barbie & Virtual Relationships

Back in 2011 when Siri was the new hotness, I discussed the notion of how voice recognition and personal digital assistants such as Siri may encourage users to interact with them as they would an actual person. In short, will we start to develop relationships with our virtual companions?

The movie Her brought that notion to life and to its logical conclusion:

Having the in-depth conversations that Hello Barbie will foster will naturally lead to a sense of intimacy and that is the foundation of relationships.

6) Mattel’s Societal Obligations With Hello Barbie

I think the biggest question this toy poses is what will be Mattel’s societal obligations regarding the toy’s use?

What if a child, for instance, discusses instances of abuse with Hello Barbie?

Surely voice recognition technology that is as sophisticated as ToyTalk’s appears to be should be able to flag likely phrases a child might use when confiding to Barbie that she’d been physically or emotionally abused? What exactly are Mattel’s obligations in such situations?

I don’t pretend to know the answer but the question is an obvious one. What do you think?

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About David Erickson

David Erickson is principal of e-Strategy Media, a digital marketing consultancy based in Minnesota. David has extensive experience in digital marketing and is often used as an expert source by media and asked to speak on the topic before organizations and to sit on panel discussions.

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