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New Interactive Toys Have Something to Say : Dolls With Tape- or Microchip-Based Voices Mouth Words and Move Eyes

November 28, 1986|JOHN DREYFUSS | Times Staff Writer

Did somebody down there say "Turn me over. Hug me, I love you, I'm sleepy?"

Could be it was two microchips dressed in vinyl and called Baby Talk. She's 20 inches long, and all she eats is batteries.

When Baby Talk speaks, which is frequently, her lips and cheeks move in sync with her words. She demands to be turned over when placed on her stomach. If you do turn her over, Baby Talk goes to sleep--unless you continue talking to her, in which case she talks right back.

Request to Be Fed

She comes in black or white. She asks to be fed and, when obliged by having a bottle pushed into her mouth, responds by moving her cheeks and making sucking noises. She says "That was good" when she's had enough.

Baby Talk is a fast-selling example of the newest category of toys called "animated interactive."

The fact is that children have been interacting with dolls for centuries. But with the new breed of "interactive" toys, the dolls often talk back in their own voices and vocabularies while mouthing their words and moving their eyes.

In some cases, the dolls do almost all the talking.

For example, there's Teddy Ruxpin, the fuzzy bear who last Christmas came out of nowhere (the company that makes him didn't even exist 10 months before Christmas) to create a new market.

Unlike Baby Talk, whose vocabulary rests in a silicon microchip, Teddy Ruxpin's wisdom stems from special tapes inserted in a player built into his back. His mouth and eye movements synchronize with the words of songs and adventure stories he tells.

If Teddy needs company, he can be wired to Grubby, an eight-legged, creature whose conversation and animation are controlled--like Teddy's--by the tape in the bear's player. Grubby, who became available this year, talks with Teddy.

The makers of Teddy Ruxpin this year have added animated Snoopy and Charlie Brown dolls to their family of toys with tape-recorded tales to tell.

Microchip-brain dolls tend to encourage more constant interaction than their tape-brain cousins because microchip vocabularies offer a word or phrase at a time, pausing to let a child respond. Some microchips require dolls to speak at regular intervals, others say something and then pause until the child responds by moving the doll or making a noise to trigger another phrase, and some dolls combine both features. The taped vocabularies run more toward stories and songs children can share by reading books that come with the dolls, or by following the taped instructions spoken by the dolls.

Some Dolls 'Deactivated'

Kids can make anything into anything: sticks into guns, cartons into houses, tin cans into drums and animated interactive dolls into plain old-fashioned dolls of yesteryear.

Indeed, some children tend to "deactivate" interactive dolls; they turn off the dolls and turn on their own imaginations, observed Carol Dutton, a child-development specialist at Kaiser Permanente Hospital in West Los Angeles.

"As I walk by rooms I seldom hear the children playing them," Dutton said. "Once the thrill wears off they tend to use the dolls in their own way." That way, she continued, is for youngsters to switch off the interactive mechanisms, and invent their own roles and vocabularies for the dolls.

Interactive dolls cost about $25 to $100, depending on the store and the doll. The rush to clamber aboard the interactive bandwagon has spawned some unimpressive toys, and some that seem bound for success. The less impressive ones reveal obviously inferior materials and workmanship--in some cases their hair sheds, in others they sound as if they're talking with a mouthful of sand. Better-made, easier-to-understand toys tend to sort themselves out and attract buyers.

"Baby Talk and Cricket are your two big (selling) dolls," noted Lou Miller, recently retired vice president of Federal Wholesale Toys in La Mirada.

Cricket is a 25-inch black or white baby who looks up, down and sideways while her mouth synchronizes with such taped miscellany as stories, songs, poems, knock-knock jokes and Simon Says games on subjects ranging from vacation time to bedtime.

Any tape will work in Cricket's player, though only the dozen designed specifically for her will synchronize correctly with her mouth movements. Some others come close, particularly those with high, childlike voices. Madonna vocals are particularly effective, though the doll goes a little crazy during instrumental breaks.

Lesley Kernochan, a 5-year-old Santa Monica girl who played with Cricket, declared the six-pound doll "too big and heavy." But Lesley found the animation features mysterious and "neat," and she took the doll to bed with her because its "Sleepy Time" tape "gets me to sleep when she sings her last bedtime song."

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