Why Hello Barbie Is Not as Creepy as She Sounds

Posted by | September 11, 2015 | Opinion | No Comments
hello barbie

This week at the Digitial Kids Summit, Julia Pistor of Mattel and Oren Jacob of ToyTalk talked about how and why they developed Hello Barbie, which will ship in October. What were they thinking when they created a doll that could carry on Siri-like conversations?

The idea of kids conversing with characters occurred to Oren Jacob in 2011 when his young daughter had been Skyping with her grandmother. She asked if she could Skype with her teddy bear. That got Jacob started on an app called The Winston Show. The Winston Show lets kids talk to a yellow banana-looking character that likes to crack jokes. The app won an award in 2013 for most innovative app for kids.

hello barbie

Winston converses, too.

After developing a few conversation-based apps, he worked with Mattel to develop talking (and listening) apps and toys, including Thomas & Friends Talk To You and the new Hello Barbie doll.

Is This Just a New Form of Storytelling?

From Oren Jacob’s perspective, toys like Hello Barbie represent a new form of storytelling. Jacob and Pistor said they used the principles of improv a lot. That means Hello Barbie will be doing a lot of “yes…and,” which means she’ll agree with what you said and move the conversation forward. Jacob said they had to consider things like how long Barbie pauses and whether she interrupts.

Pistor pointed out that Barbie is a brand, but she’s also a well-established character. Who is Barbie? Well, Barbie is curious, adventurous, and empathetic. But she’s not arrogant. And, by the way, she’s 17, so she’s always learning and evolving. “Barbie needs a point of view to have a relationship with a little girl,” said Pistor.

The development team ended up treating Hello Barbie like a character in a movie. They hired a director and gave the voice actress a context for everything she said. Hello Barbie has a big repertoire. She’ll work best for kids over about the age of 6, and she’ll be able to converse on a broad range of topics, from fashion to physics.

The point, said Pistor and Jacob, is to encourage iterative, imaginitive play. “I want children doing things that engage their minds…if I can involve language and communication in an enjoyable play pattern, holy cow what a gift,” said Jacob. “The use of vocabulary, of syntax, of grammar, of idiom, of communicating back…I’m in for that for miles.”

What’s the Controversy About?

After Hello Barbie was announced and shown off at the New York Toy Fair, some advocacy groups objected to the whole idea of a doll that has conversations with kids and records them. Jacobs posted a statement on ToyTalk’s website to counter some of the misunderstandings about what Barbie could do and how the audio recordings would be used. He also covered some of those things at the Digital Kids Summit:

  • Barbie is NOT always on. You have to press her belt buckle to start the conversation. She works sort of like a walkie-talkie.
  • There is no geolocation ability in Barbie.
  • Because of COPPA laws that protect the privacy of children under 13, apps that record kids have to comply with some pretty strict requirements. For instance, parental consent is required. To get parental consent, parents’ emails are collected. ToyTalk’s Legal FAQ for the Thomas the Tank Engine app says that “It is possible for children to provide additional personal information when they talk with our characters, and such information may be captured in these recordings. However, it is our policy to delete such information where we become aware of it and we contractually require our service providers to do the same.” ToyTalk also discloses that they send the recordings to the parents and they may use the recordings for research and development (to improve the product) but not for advertising to kids or contacting them. Parents can choose to permanently delete recordings.
  • There is no real-time monitoring of conversations.
  • Barbie doesn’t go out to the web to find information. She draws from a database in the cloud controlled by Mattel.
  • There is no way for different Hello Barbies to share data with one another.

Jacob made the point that the way conversations are collected and controlled by Hello Barbie “is substantively more restrictive than anything in your smartphone today.”

The Upshot

Whether we like it or not, toys and games that record our voices (and images) are probably here to stay. It’s good that laws like COPPA extend extra privacy protection to kids.

For my part, I hope that parents will be careful with their kids’ recordings. Personally, I would not share recordings of my kids on Facebook, but I won’t be surprised if that happens. A lot. Just think of all the cute sound bytes kids are going to be producing in their conversations with Barbie.

I would also be careful about listening in on my kids’ conversations with their toys—especially if they were over the age of 7 or so. That means I wouldn’t listen to my kids’ conversations with a doll unless they knew I was doing it.

But that’s just me. Every parent is going to have to make rules about these new toys. It won’t surprise me if some parents decide it’s too complicated, thank you, and stick with old-fashioned, mute Barbies.

Other parents and kids will at least want to try Hello Barbie out. Julia Pistor said the number-one reason they decided to develop Hello Barbie was that girls said they wanted to be able to have a conversation with their dolls: “Girls want to have their own personal relationship with Barbie.”

Linda Breneman

About Linda Breneman

Linda learned to play video games as a way to connect with her teenaged kids, and then she learned to love video games for their own sake. At Pixelkin she wrangles the business & management side of things, writes posts as often as she can, reaches out on the social media, and does the occasional panel or talk. She lives in Seattle, where she writes, studies, plays video games, spends time with her family, consumes vast quantities of science fiction, and looks after her small cockapoo. She loves to hear from people out there. You can read more about her at her website, Linda Breneman.com or her family foundation's website, ludusproject.org.