From the Star Wars BB-8 to Hello Barbie: This holiday season is all about robotic toys

Robots are the hottest trend in toys this year. Here are a few you should know about before the holidays kick in.

By on October 13, 2015

Decades ago, toymakers began incorporating mechanics into their products. Teddy Ruxpin, a popular toy bear in the 1980s, came with a cassette that held two audio tracks for stereo sound reproduction. One track controlled a data stream, which in turn controlled servomotors, which moved the bear's eyes and mouth. The result was an animatronic bear. Teddy Ruxpin certainly wasn’t the first of his kind, nor was he the last. Since then, the toy industry has incorporated various mechanics, and this year is a huge one for robotics.

The Star Wars BB-8 by Sphero is a working replica of the BB-8 droid that will be introduced in the "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" movie that hits theaters in December. The small robot operates through an app, offering functions like "drive," "message" and "patrol," and can also function independently. Early reviews of the toy are favorable, even impressing adults — Mashable’s Lance Ulanoff has called it “remarkable,” adding that it’s more than a toy, it’s a “digital companion.”

Taking that idea even further is the new Wi-Fi-friendly Hello Barbie, which will come to life before a child’s eyes through artificial intelligence and ToyTalk technology. With a combination of AI software, a microphone, Wi-Fi and speech recognition capabilities, the Barbie will be able to communicate, at least via the 8,000 lines of dialogue the doll comes supplied with. This is just the start — researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have an AI nursery, where they have “developed algorithms that enable robots to learn motor tasks through trial and error using a process that more closely approximates the way humans learn.”

A recent New York Times story on the doll praised its capabilities, but questioned what will happen when a child believes Barbie is real, given its ability to respond to thousands of questions. The new Barbie will be able to deliver fairly generic and positive declarations, like “I just know we’re going to be friends!” However, she also brings up more complex issues — after the doll asked for advice about trouble with a friend, a child told Barbie to apologize. “You’re right. I should apologize. I’m not mad anymore. I just want to be friends again,” was Barbie’s response. Where there used to be only imagination to bring the doll to life, there is now a programmed machine.

Richard Gottlieb, of Global Toy Experts, says that toys like this are good for children, noting that they help prepare them for future technology. “I think Hello Barbie is pretty unique. It's emotive as well as intelligent. Robotic toys like Hello Barbie are preparing children to live in a future in which they will engage intelligent robots and other AI devices on a daily basis,” Gottlieb says.

While the above toys bring a companionship factor to the table, there are other companies using robotic technology to simply make old toys “cooler.” The company behind the newly launched Boogie Dice believes in the power of pairing a motor and an app with an inanimate object. They say that the self-rolling dice, which activate via sound (clap, bang, snap) and feature LED lights, will “open up a new arena of tabletop gaming.”  The Boogie Dice pitch is to end “long boring board games like a 6-hour session of Monopoly,"helping to keep the whole family “intrigued, involved and absolutely amazed.”

Additionally, the team behind Boogie Dice plan to release a variety of tabletop Boogie Dice based games, like Bots Battleground, now on Kickstarter, which essentially has the dice controlling the path of the game.

These robotic additions to the toy chest will be joined by more and more in the coming years, and will work as both companions and a way to bring families together in a new way.

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