An earlier version of the doll with a much more limited ability to speak — Teen Talk Barbie, released in 1992 — enraged critics with the utterance, ‘‘Math class is tough.’’ The American Association of University Women called on Mattel to recall the doll, and the company, apologizing, deleted the offending line from the computer chip.The technology behind Barbie’s latest campaign to speak was inspired by an incident four years ago, when a 7-year-old girl named Toby sat on the floor of her family’s playroom in Piedmont, Calif.She and her father were chatting with her grandmother, using the Skype app on an i Phone. Toby’s father was Oren Jacob, who until recently had worked at Pixar, and he says he just laughed at his daughter’s remark at the time.After the call, Toby gazed across the room at her favorite stuffed animal, a fuzzy rabbit she called Tutu, and then back at the phone. Jacob started at the company in 1990, while he was still an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley.Her stiltlike legs, tiny waist and enormous breasts set her apart from the childish dolls that had reigned until that time; in the 1950s, before Barbie was even released, a mother complained to Mattel that the doll had ‘‘too much of a figure.’’ Her appearance has remained controversial.Protesters at the 1972 Toy Fair complained that Barbie and other dolls encouraged girls ‘‘to see themselves solely as mannequins, sex objects or housekeepers,’’ according to an account in The New York Times.Each time, whatever someone said to Barbie would be recorded and transmitted via Wi-Fi to the computer servers of Toy Talk.
Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana are still far from the science-fiction promise of Samantha from the movie ‘‘Her.’’ But as conversational technology improves, it may one day rival keyboards and touch screens as our primary means of communicating with computers — according to Apple, Siri already handles more than a billion spoken requests per week.
The wall opposite them was mirrored from floor to ceiling, and behind it, unseen in a darkened room, a half-dozen employees of the toy company Mattel sat watching through one-way glass.
The girl, who looked about 7, wore a turquoise sweatshirt and had her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail.
But things are different with children, because children are different.
Especially with the very young, ‘‘it is very hard for them to distinguish what is real from what is not real,’’ says Doris Bergen, a professor of educational psychology at Miami University in Ohio who studies play.