The 56-year-old Barbie’s social calendar is busier than ever these days. This coming week, teen celebrity Zendaya is being honored for encouraging girls to “raise their voices” with a one-of-a-kind Barbie doll to be presented at the Barbie Rock ‘N Royals Concert Experience on September 26 at the Hollywood Palladium.
And then there’s Socality Barbie, the satirical so-called Hipster Barbie whose Instagram account by an anonymous 20-year-old wedding photographer in Oregon places the doll in cliche hipsterrific poses and clothes: on the beach in a blanket, wearing a beanie or packing for the weekend and taking her high-heeled hiking boots.
The creator of Socality Barbie told Wired she got the idea because “people were all taking the same pictures in the same places and using the same captions. I couldn’t tell any of their pictures apart so I thought, ‘What better way to make my point than with a mass-produced doll?’” As Wired quipped, “Hipster Barbie is so much better at Instagram than you”—citing how the faux Barbie doll is a hashtag savant who likes chatting with her fans in the comments.
Back in the real world of Barbie, the doll formally known as Barbara Millicent Roberts is embracing the future—and it turns out she has a lot to say. Thanks to artificial intelligence, the Hello Barbie doll that was unveiled at the 2015 New York Toy Fair earlier this year now knows 8,000 lines of dialogue and can improvise based on ongoing conversation. She can talk about music or stars like Taylor Swift, “She’s one of my super favorites right now!”
Mattel has partnered with San Francisco startup ToyTalk on Hello Barbie, which is now available for pre-ordering for $74.99 at Mattel.com and select retailers, and will be released in stores in November in time for the holidays. It was inspired when CEO Oren Jacob’s then 7-year-old daughter Toby Skyped her grandmother on her iPhone, and then asked her dad if she could do the same with Tutu, her toy rabbit.
Oren worked at Pixar as a TD and helped create Buzz Lightyear’s rocket exhaust in Toy Story and the watery world of Finding Nemo. By 2008 he was CTO, reporting directly to John Lasseter and Steve Jobs until 2011 when he and Martin Reddy, Pixar’s lead software engineer, decided to start ToyTalk.
Hello Barbie, available in three skin tones, brings a cheery maturity to her conversations, according to a feature in The New York Times Sunday magazine, which ranges from tidbits of information like, “Did you know a cat can see six times better than a human?” to more complicated questions from young girls.
A sample of real conversations with Hello Barbie:
‘‘Do you believe in God?’’
‘‘I think a person’s beliefs are very personal to them.’’
‘‘I’m getting bullied in school.’’
‘‘That’s sounds like something you should talk to a grown-up about.’’
‘‘Do you think I’m pretty?’’
‘‘Of course you’re pretty, but you know what else you are? You’re smart, talented and funny.’’
‘‘I feel shy trying to make new friends.’’
‘‘Feeling shy is nothing to feel bad about. Just remember this — you made friends with me right away.’’
‘‘I like to think of her as the world’s best babysitter,’’ said Sarah Wulfeck of ToyTalk, after observing a girl taking Barbie to her room for an intimate chat. ‘‘I have no doubt she will ask Barbie all manner of those intimate questions that she wouldn’t ask an adult.’’
One design modification the companies had to make involved the doll’s physique, as Hello Barbie’s thighs have been thickened slightly to hide a rechargeable battery. A mini-USB charging port is tucked into the small of her back, while a microphone is concealed in her necklace.
Proponents of AI see it an education-enhancer even in play, while privacy advocates are alarmed by Barbie’s chat recordings, with the audio stored on ToyTalk servers. Parents can listen to, delete or share recordings, but the wealth of intimate chat from young girls in the hands of any big company is unsettling for parents and privacy advocates alike.
“Issues like privacy and security against hacks are deeply troubling when it comes to AI toys,” Engadget comments. “But neither of those concerns seems lost on the company that is in the business of delivering dolls to suit every generation. Whether those concerns have been fully addressed will be seen in November when the doll hits the shelves.”
Indeed, ToyTalk CEO Jacob has already responded to those concerns in a Fast Company article, where he commented that under Hello Barbie’s terms of service, recordings “may be used for research and development purposes,” things like improving its technology and refining its algorithms. The data is “absolutely not allowed to be used for advertising, publicity, or marketing purposes.”
“We’re going to do our best to be appealing and engaging and to celebrate the aspirations that kids have,” he added. “That’s a gift to bring that to market.”