Weapons for Christmas

My seven year old daughter Sydney recently asked, “Daddy, when is Christmas?” I asked “Why?” She said (or more accurately, I heard) “Because I know what I want. I want weapons.”

I was a bit taken aback. But after some clarification I realized that I hadn’t heard her properly (more on her intent if you read on.) It’s always interesting to me when people hear things wrong. Humans have so many great clues about intent and context, yet we still occasionally get the wrong message. The best speech recognition systems actually try to take contextual probabilities into account. Dictation systems don’t just perform speech recognition, but get into “meaning” recognition as well.

I remember one system I read about from Bell Labs that included a camera to help improve accuracy by watching the speaker’s mouth and performing lip-reading. Humans utilize this approach too; I used to find it mildly amusing (back before I had my eyes lasered) to realize that when I took my contacts out I couldn’t always understand what people were saying. Too many years of playing in loud rock bands has damaged my hearing and I have learned to compensate by watching lips while I listen. The makers of the Jawbone Bluetooth headset have employed an interesting approach to noise reduction by “listening” in on the jawbone movements to help isolate the persons speaking from the background noises.

Okay, so what does my daughter want for Christmas? Webkinz, not weapons. Webkinz are the latest Virtual Pet toy craze. Virtual Pets have been around for a long time, but really exploded with Bandai’s 1997 hit Tamagotchi, which sold something like 40-50 million units. Tiger’s 1998 phenomenal hit Furby (which used a Sensory/TI SC chip in its original introduction and a Sensory RSC chip in it’s 2005 re-introduction) was a big enough sensation that Hasbro bought the company for over $300 million dollars.

The original Tamagotchi was a simple little virtual pet contained in a watch-like device with a small display. A few buttons enabled feeding, sleeping and other activities like exercise. The first Furby added mechanics to the mix by making a virtual creature that could move around and speak “Furbish”, while products like Sony’s Aibo and Furby II added more complex mechanics along with speech recognition. Webkins use the Internet to take one step forward in technology. Users can log onto their accounts and do various things to and with their pets, but the “pets” themselves are really a step backwards in simplicity. No mechanics, no speech recognizers, not much really but a ball of plush!

Nevertheless, the idea of products that interact with the Internet is big today and it will just get bigger. Even my four year old son goes onto the Internet to play games. Kids are growing up with big monitors, big memories, and powerful processors, and toy companies can make their products more powerful by taking advantage of this. I think more and more toy products will have online personas and the ability to download new gameplays, voices and recognition sets in the near future. In fact, watch out for a new chip from Sensory in 2008 that includes a USB port to make this kind of communication really easy. This is not a new idea for Sensory; some of our early patents made claims for this kind of stuff, and it’s really fun and exciting to see it all coming to life!