Dino is one of the new breed of toys with a ‘personality’

Tech toys with real-world interaction for a new generation of children

Image credit: Cognitoys

Worried about children retreating into a world dominated by screens? Fear not, the latest tech toys very much exist in three dimensions.

In her room a little girl is playing with her pet dinosaur. “How far is it from the Earth to the Sun?” she asks, thinking of her science lesson tomorrow.

“It is 149.6 million kilometres,” answers the creature in a gruff voice.

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” replies the little dino. “Would you like me to tell you a joke?”

“OK.”

“Why wouldn’t the shrimp share his treasure?”

The girl thinks for a while before shaking her head. “I don’t know.”

The little dinosaur chuckles. “Because he was a little shellfish.”

This isn’t a dream or a scene from the latest Disney-Pixar movie. It is a real toy. The dinosaur powered by AI (artificial intelligence) is just one of a new generation of smart toys hitting the market, including IoT (Internet of Things) connected building bricks and dolls that react emotionally to the way they are played with. There are even toys you can control with your mind.

“We’re at this moment in time which is going to be the definition of a new type of product,” says J.P. Benini, CTO and co-founder of Elemental Path, the company that makes Cognitoys, the talking dinosaurs. “We’re going to see more and more of these devices specifically tailored to offer a level of personalisation, interaction and education that we haven’t seen before.”

One of this new generation of smart, connected playthings is Vai Kai, a handcrafted wooden doll that looks about as traditional as a toy gets. Except that it has a heartbeat that changes in response to emotional stimuli, reacts excitedly, sadly or angrily depending on how it is played with, and gives you a kiss when held against your skin.

The traditional look of Vai Kai encapsulates its creators’ desire to bring back physical play and move away from screen culture with its two-dimensional interface. “The screen is all about eyes and fingers,” says Justyna Zubrycka, co-founder and chief designer at Vai Kai. “We really wanted to engage all the senses like touch and smell. That’s why our toy is wooden – when you hold it in your hand and feel a heartbeat, certain emotions are excited already just by this sense.” Zubrycka and co-founder, Lithuanian-born Matas Petrikas (Vai Kai is Lithuanian for ‘children’), wanted to create a toy that became an emotional companion for children, growing and developing with them. The marriage of traditional handcrafted materials with cutting-edge tech allowed that, both as a long-lasting object and something that could update and change over time.

The relationship is encouraged through physical interactions with the doll. Children can kiss it and it kisses them back. If they shake it roughly it makes angry noises, but if they make it fly through the air it becomes excited. When they pick it up, they hear a heartbeat and they can change its pace depending on how they play with it.

The device is connected to an app and thus to parents who can send kisses, which the doll relays to the child. Updates via the app allow the relationship to develop and change as the child grows. The latest one Vai Kai is working on is an alarm to wake the child - but not just any old alarm.

“This is something which wakes up a child more naturally,” says Zubrycka, “not just with sound but with curiosity and playfulness.” Sometimes the doll will wake up making angry noises and the child will have to play with it to make it happy. Other times it might be over-excited and need to be calmed down.

“There has to be an element of surprise,” says Zubrycka. “Then a child is curious every morning and never knows what is going to happen.”

Building a relationship between a toy and child is what the makers of Cognitoys are also trying to do. But with their talking dinosaur they went a step further, giving it a voice and artificial intelligence powered by IBM’s Watson. The idea was introduced at a Watson hackathon in 2014 where a young group of app developers decided to take a different spin on IBM’s powerful Jeopardy-winning AI.

“Everyone else in the competition was in finance or healthcare,” says Elemental Path’s Benini, “but we had actually worked on apps for toys. We knew Watson was good for answering questions. We knew children over the age of five could ask over a hundred questions a day. So what if kids could ask this thing questions and it would answer in a child-like response?”

The team made it to the finals, where they got access to Watson itself. Benini found himself standing on stage interacting with a proof of concept in the form of a sock puppet with a speaker-phone inside.

Fast-forward three years and the sock puppet has become the Dino, a 6in-high (15cm) dinosaur that answers questions, tells jokes and stories and plays games with its child owner. The child presses a button on the Dino’s belly to speak to it and the Dino responds – sometimes after a few seconds’ delay – in a cute gravelly voice reminiscent of the Cookie Monster from ‘Sesame Street’. The product was developed just at the time that voice-recognition software was beginning to find its feet. Once they had that in place, and a database of child-friendly answers so they didn’t have to use the internet, the team went about creating a personality that was a smart buddy who would always have a developmental age a couple of years older than its child owner.

The Dino evolves with the child, both in actual age and in developmental terms, based on the child’s responses to activities. If a five-year-old asks it how far away the Moon is, it will answer: “The Moon is really far. Too far to walk.” But if a nine-year-old asks the same question, the response is: “The Moon is 238,900 miles away and it moves further away each year.” The Dino learns from the child’s responses and integrates the information in future stories, facts and games. So if a child asks lots of questions about trains, for example, it will learn that he or she is interested in this subject and come up with fun facts about trains or incorporate them into stories.

Elemental Path is also working on other toys to promote STEM education in children. The STEMosaur will be a Dino that children can assemble themselves and program with their own content, including jokes and stories. It is also developing an ‘alien robot boy scout’ that will be packed full of fun science information about the various planets and parts of the galaxy he has visited. “This thing’s going to have a very deep knowledge about things like astronomy and space,” says Benini, “but keeping the imaginative and open-play angle to it. Think of it like your child’s alien buddy.”

Another company focusing on STEM outreach is Brixo. The Israel-based start-up has taken the concept of Lego and evolved it a step further, with smart batteries and conductive building blocks enabling children to create and programme their own circuits in an intuitive fashion. It came about because founder and renowned quantum physicist Boaz Almog was amazed by the lack of innovation in STEM education.

“When kids do science experiments in electricity in third and fourth grade at school, at least in Israel,” says Gil Taran, Brixo’s CEO, “they show you a little light that’s connected to a battery with two open wires. It’s the same thing we did 30 years ago. There’s got to be a better way of doing it. So we said, can we turn Lego – something most kids know about – into something that enhances their learning and makes it fun?”

Brixo kits come with a smart battery that is Bluetooth-enabled and can be controlled from a phone. Other bricks are chrome coated to make them electrically conductive, and others have sensors that are light, sound or proximity activated. The bricks can be used alone to create simple circuits, like a light activated by the click of a finger, or combined with other toy building blocks to add an interactive, dynamic dimension to a child’s creations. This could be a garage with a light that switches on when the car goes inside, or a windmill that activates a flashing light with its motion.

Rather than using fiddly cables or expensive Wi-Fi to connect its various parts, Brixo uses a novel solution with patent-pending voltage fluctuations. Commands sent from the app tell the battery to change the power. This is picked up by sensors, which act as switches, turning the circuit on or off, changing the intensity of the light or reversing the polarity. Brixo is now building programming capabilities into the app so children could, for instance, instruct the circuit to start for two seconds at 100 per cent intensity then switch to 70 per cent intensity for 10 seconds, then change direction for five seconds. Even more complicated programming can be done on a computer through a Python API via a Bluetooth-enabled dongle.

The beauty of Brixo is it is bundled STEM teaching in a fun, gamified way. “It teaches kids mechanical engineering, physics, electrical engineering and programming all in one,” says Taran. “But it doesn’t say, hey guys you’re going to learn engineering or physics. All it says is, come play with me.”

If Brixo took an iconic toy and elevated it to a new level, the same can definitely be said of Professor Christopher James. He and his team of masters students at the University of Warwick took the classic racing game, Scalextric, and made it mind-controlled. The team took a commercial brain-computer interface (BCI) headset called Neurosky and hooked it up to a Scalextric set so that the speed of the cars could be controlled directly by the brains of the players. The headset picks up levels of alpha waves generated by the brain, processes and amplifies them by computer, and feeds them back into the electrical circuit of the track.

Alpha waves correspond to relaxation and concentration levels, so the more a competitor relaxes and concentrates the faster they go. “Of course, you’re asking someone to relax in a gaming environment,” says Professor James, “and the two are the very opposite of each other and that’s the whole point – it’s hard to relax and compete at the same time.”

Designed more as a STEM outreach project than as a commercial venture, the mind-controlled Scalextric could help children with ADHD or autism to relax and focus. However, more complicated applications, such as those for commercial toys, might have to wait for an advance in the technology. The main stumbling block is that asking someone to concentrate hard on something makes it difficult to do anything else at the same time. “BCI can’t really go mainstream,” says James, “until we can find a way of putting on a headset and just subconsciously wanting something to move, and it moves.”

The problem is generating a strong enough signal from the brain that takes little effort of concentration. One way forward that James and his team are working on is using emotional responses, which could provide both a strong enough signal and have the unconscious, knee-jerk quality that allow the user to concentrate on other things at the same time. “If that bottleneck can be overcome,” says James, “the sky’s the limit. What we connect it to could be absolutely anything.” To prove the point he has a video of his son driving a Toyota MR2 around a car park while sitting in the passenger seat, using a BCI.

Commercial mind-controlled toys could be just around the corner, while connected and intelligent toys, it seems, are on the verge of becoming mainstream. Are we on the cusp of a toy revolution? Benini thinks so. He compares it to the rise of the smartphone once all aspects of the technology were in place.

“Before the iPhone, smartphones were a bit of a hot mess,” he says. “They were cumbersome and difficult to use and they were relegated to tech nerds and engineers. Now they’re everywhere. When you take the right amount of technology and turn it in the right way so it’s easy to use, it becomes ubiquitous.” 

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