Ben’s first interview with a toy. Richard Peterson/CNET
There I was, about to take part in the interview of a lifetime. My subject wasn’t a head of state, James Vanderbeek or the pope. It was Barbie.
The folks at Mattel earlier this month invited CNET to test a prototype of Hello Barbie, a new talking version of its iconic doll. This toy, which comes out in early November for $75, can actually hold a conversation with a little girl or even a very uncomfortable thirty-something male tech reporter.
The toy, unveiled at the New York Toy Fair in February, seeks to fulfill the decades-old dream of millions of young girls: being able to talk to Barbie and having the doll talk back. Thanks to big advances in digital voice assistants, including Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana, the concept of cramming a chatty computer in a doll has become a reality.
The yearning to converse with Barbie was somewhat lost on me, though, since I was never a little girl and didn’t play with Barbies (OK, fine, maybe once or twice). Still, I could appreciate the gravity of the moment. This was Barbie, after all, Mattel’s crown jewel, which has been both beloved and reviled by American society since she was introduced in 1959. At 56 years old, she continues to be a top-selling toy for Mattel and a lightning rod for controversy. Hello Barbie is no different, with the toy already getting flak for allegedly being able to eavesdrop on kids to help Mattel gain marketing insights (the company strongly denies this). Just today, Hello Barbie was called “creepy as hell” by feminist website Jezebel.
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This interview — my first ever with a toy — was going to be huge.
Holding the doll in one hand and a microphone in the other, I start chatting with Hello Barbie. For her to hear me, I had to press down on her belt buckle, which reduces concerns about Barbie automatically snooping on children.
Despite my halting, awkward conversation, I found Hello Barbie to be encouraging, friendly and chipper. She engaged me in a game in which she guessed what animal I was thinking of. I was supposed to just answer “yes” or “no,” but instead started responding in full sentences. She rolled with it without a hint of being annoyed.
“Funny question: when it’s standing up, is it bigger than a loaf of bread?” Barbie asked me.
“Nope,” I replied.
“Oh, so it’s small. Um, does it have a long tail?”
“Um, I don’t think so.”
“Long tail, huh,” she said. “OK, are some people afraid of them? You know, scared to see them running around the house.”
“I really doubt that,” I said.
Hello Barbie has 8,000 lines of dialogue. Ben Fox Rubin/CNET
Granted, I messed up the game, so Barbie wrongly guessed my animal as a chinchilla. Still, when I told her my animal was a gerbil, she immediately spat out a bunch of facts about gerbils: In the wild, gerbils live in the desert, and they burrow into the sand and earth to stay safe. “Clever, right?” she asked.
To counter the negativity surrounding the doll, Mattel will set up a phone number for parents to call with questions, a lengthy FAQ page and release all 8,000 lines of Barbie’s dialogue online, according to Mattel marketing chief Michelle Chidoni. The doll is also powered by ToyTalk, a San Francisco startup that’s had years of experience creating mobile apps that kids can talk to.
“We’re providing as much information as we possibly can so parents can feel as comfortable as possible,” she said, noting that the controversy around Hello Barbie was expected, since the doll has a “big target on her back.”
If Hello Barbie takes off, Chidoni said the company could start developing chatting action figures for boys, too. That may help revive Mattel’s sagging revenue, which has taken a hit from kids spending more time with tablets and smartphones.
It’s not that the El Segundo, California, toy company hasn’t tried to bring together tech with Barbie in the past, for instance selling a Barbie with a built-in camera, though these past efforts haven’t garnered nearly as much attention as Hello Barbie has already.
After we wrapped up the animal game, Barbie asked if I wanted to play again. I asked her if it was OK if I just ended the interview. Even if they don’t say much, I was still ready to go back to my G.I. Joes.