STEAM

Ira Surfs the Trends at NY Toy Fair

Unintended Potential, Part I: Talking Barbie

There’s a lot of talk about STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) and STEAM (add “arts”), and plenty of laudable products to support entertaining educational play. Mattel supports Nickelodeon’s BLAZE, for example, and there are a wide array of licensed Discovery toys spanning an array of subjects.

But sometimes there seem to be hidden potential applications for other toys. Take Mattel’s new talking Barbie. A child can ask questions of the doll; questions and responses are stored in the cloud, content can be updated by Mattel, and the doll builds on past conversations.

We asked whether there had been any thought to a wider range of inquiries and whether the doll searches the Internet. “Barbie will never search the Internet; we’re COPPA [Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act] compliant,” came the reflexive response to an anticipated question that might have insinuated Barbie entertaining inappropriate subject matter with her charges.

But I was asking in a different context. Last fall there was a media frenzy when a mother wrote an article for The New York Times about how Apple’s Siri app engages her autistic son by being willing to pursue a subject endlessly. (See also NPR interview with the mom.)

The Mattel spokespeople were intrigued and introduced me to the outside developer who had created the Barbie application, Benjamin Morse, “Teddy Roboticist” for Toy Talk, a San Francisco company that has previously developed the apps The Winston Show (“a talk show where the characters talk back”) and SpeakaZoo (“where you talk with the animals”).

Feels like there’s something there for someone, whether it’s Barbie or otherwise.