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One of the latest fads of the past millennium can be allocated to the Furby. This electronic plush toy became a huge worldwide success when it was launched on the market at the end of 1998. The Furby is a relatively small toy with a height of approximate 15 centimeter with furry skin, giant ears and a face with human like eyes and a beak. Its visual characteristics are based on a hamster and an owl. The Furby was reintroduced in 2005 with a complete new model, but the original Furby remains the most successful version.
Furbies were one of the first successful attempts to produce and sell domestically-aimed toy robots. The original Furby is equipped with different sensors, a speaker and it is driven by a single reversible motor. A newly purchased Furby starts out speaking entirely its unique language called Furbish, but is programmed to speak less Furbish as it gradually start using English language fragments or any other real language.
The creators of the Furby are Dave Hampton and Caleb Chung, who spent 18 months to develop the Furby. They got inspiration for inventing the Furby when they found the key chain virtual pets like the Tamagotchi very limiting with its small screens, crude graphics and beeping sounds and wanted to improve the virtual pet idea by creating a real-world cuddly pet with a more advanced vocabulary. Eventually it was brought on the market by Tiger Electronics. The name Furby is derived from 'Fur ball', the working title of the Furby.
The goal of this project is to develop a new Furby, with the knowhow and technology of 2010.
The first generation of the original line of Furbies were launched at the worldwide market in October 1998. Hardly one month after the release were the Furbies almost completely sold out all over the world. Furbies originally retailed for about 30 dollar, but the excess demand and limited availability drove the price over 100 dollar.
The second generation was released at the beginning of 1999. This version had a big advantage over his predecessor because of the implementation of a deep sleep mode, so noisy nights were past history. In total there have been designed eight different generations of six Furbies each, of which six generations were put on the market, mainly during the holiday seasons. Later generations are characterized by more distinct colours, although these were still based on animals. Their functionality remained the same. Production of the original Furby continued until halfway 2000.
In July 1999, following the success of the original Furbies, the Furby Babies line was introduced. These are smaller versions of the original adult ones, with more baby-like colours, voices and personalities. They can't dance, but have a larger vocabulary. In 2000, when the fad was coming to an end, Hasbro introduced new kind of Furby like creatures. These are just Furbies with a different visual appearance. For instance Shelby, which resembles the original Furby regarding its functions, but looks like a clamp. Like all Furbies, these offspring of the Furby Family is also able to communicate with one another via an infrared port. Other late descendants of the original Furby family are the Yoda-Furby and the ET-Furby, based on the similar characters in respectively the movies Star Wars and ET, which were mainly used for promotional intentions. All in all there have been sold over 40 million Furbies worldwide during the three years the Furby has been produced officially.
The Furby was reintroduced in August 2005 with the release of the new Emoto-Tronic Furby. It currently is the latest species of Furby released. It is larger than the previous version, and has been upgraded with a more emotional face, making it possible to show some sort of facial expressions, and a voice recognition system, enabling them to be able to communicate better with humans. Unlike the Furbies originally released, just one order is necessary to make them 'sleep', and they have an on/off switch. They can communicate with other Emoto-Tronic Furbies, though to a lesser extent than the communication between original Furbies, and they cannot communicate with the original Furbies neither Funky Furbies. They also lack light sensors and basic motion sensors and do not respond to loud sounds as the originals do. It never came anywhere close to the success of the first Furby.
Technical aspects of the Furby
The Furby is able to perform some mechanical movements. It is able to lift his ears, turn its eyes up and down, close its eyelids, open its mouth and lift itself off the ground. This is made possible by a single reversible motor, which drives a series of gears and cams. These cams are all on the same drive shaft, so one full rotation of the shaft will put the Furby through all combinations of motions. The downside of this solution is that its patterns of eye, mouth, ears and lift motions are predetermined by the patterns on the cams. This means it cannot independently move his eyes from his mouth, for example. However, it does have a separate cam for each major function, so by careful arrangement of the lobes and shapes of the cams, moving a body part separately is possible in a limited fashion by moving the main shaft back and forth in a narrow rotation of the cams.
Each angular region of the shaft's rotation can be described as combinations of each motion controlled part's state. By arranging these states on the cams, sequences of animated motion can be achieved by rotating the main shaft forwards and backwards. For example, to dance, he may drive the main shaft back and forth 20 degrees, moving the butt motion cam, but that happens to be a dead spot for the eyeball and ear cams, making its eyes stay open and ears unmoving during the dance. The positions cannot be accessed randomly, only sequentially. Thus, in order to get to motion dance, it may need to spin through different programs like eat, blink and sleep to get there.
All of the moving body parts are clutched, spring loaded, or otherwise protected from being obstructed or manipulated by careless humans trying to restrict Furby's motion. The gears and cams are made from a softer, pliable plastic, and are protected from environmental stress by a strong black plastic hull. This may protect them from damage by allowing them to flex under stress, but it also allows them to get into invalid positions under stress and jam up easily.
Electronical parts of the Furby
Furbies are made up of many analog sensors. Switches, a light sensor, microphone, speaker, motor, gears and cams, IR transmitter and IR receiver, and more! The "brains" of the Furby are in the integrated chips that are on the PCB board (PCB board). So when you cover the light sensor and the Furby goes to sleep, that's part of the code executing on the IC (integrated chip) sensing via the analog light sensor that the light has changed and executing the code that makes Furby go to sleep.
Unfortunately the CPU is covered with some type of epoxy blob, which is often the case when companies want to prevent reverse engineering. So you can't dump the code off the chip or in any way change any code that the Furby executes. You can, however, wire up your own IC to the sensors or wire up some components in combination with the existing sensors to make them work slightly differently.
Furbies have a single main PC board, which contains a few minor chips, some analog components like caps and resistors, the pet and the inversion sensor, and connectors for the wires leading to the remote switches, speaker, microphone, IR, etc. Mounted on the main PCB are two daughter PCBs, one about 0.8x0.6" and another about 0.4" square. Each contains a blob of black plastic which usually represents a cheap, custom masked IC. This is most likely the CPU, ROM, RAM (if any), voice samples, etc. all in a single atomic unexaminable blob.
Furbies' literature claims they have three different voice "pitches". If these are represented by different voice ROM masks, then I would guess the smaller daughter PCB is the voice ROM and the larger PCB would be the CPU and software. However, it may be that the "pitches" are simply minor variations in the sound playback rates and not represented as ROM changes at all.
Definition of smart toys and robotic pets
The Furby is an example of a smart toy. But what defines a smart toy in this context?
Smart toys are standalone objects for children to play with, which use technology to enhance play by interacting with the user.
The toy is either interactive by initiation of open-ended play suggestions, when the toy initiates a play scenario by calling for attention, or by responding to the actions of the child, via input and output devices, mostly microphones, cameras, touch sensors and keyboards for input and speakers, actuators and screens for output.
The Furby can also be classified as a robotic pet. A robotic pet is an artificially intelligent machine made in the image of an animal commonly kept as a pet.
Smart toys are frequently confused with toys for which it is claimed that children who play with them become smarter. Examples are educational toys that may or may not provide on-board intelligence featuresA toy which merely contains a media player for telling the child a story should not be classified as a smart toy even if the player contains its own microprocessor. What best distinguishes a smart toy is the way the on-board intelligence is holistically integrated into the play experience in order to create simulated human-like intelligence or its facsimile.
History of smart toys and robotic pets
The Furby was not the first smart toy on the market, and surely also not the last. Here is an overview of smart toys through the years.
The first smart toys in this definition were available in the late 70's with the introduction of the microprocessor. One of the first smart toys on the market was the Texas Instrument's Speak & Spell, which was available around 1978. It is used for spelling games and guessing a mystery code. Its input device is a keyboard, its output devices are a LED read-out and speakers which give sound effects. One of the first robotic pets from the same period is Teddy Ruxpin, a robotic teddy bear from 1985. It reads children's stories via a recording device built into its back and swivels its eyes and mouth. It was largely successful all over the world.
Another very popular smart toy, the Tamagotchi, was released in 1996, a couple of years before the introduction of the Furby, which was used as inspiration by the inventors of the Furby, who used the idea to improve it. It is a relational artifact, a small virtual creature with a screen housed in its egg-shaped plastic shell. The user has to take care of it by feeding it, cleaning it or amuse it by performing actions using three buttons. If this is done properly, the toy will be "happy" and it will flourish and survive.
The Furby was not the only great innovation of smart toys in the 90's. The AIBO was introduced in 1999, a small robotic dog from Sony, with an initial price of 2500 dollar in a limited edition. It is able to walk, see its environment via a camera and recognize speech. It was an unexpected success, because the AIBO wasn't designed for any practical purpose. Sales continued until 2006, with limited produced units, making it still a very valuable artifact at EBay.
The continuing development of Furby-type technology has led to the release of the FurReal line of toys in 2002, and was launched again in 2006. These pets are based on real life pets, and move and make sound like them. They have limited programmed movement and have touch and sound sensors as input devices.
A lot of robotic pets have been introduced since then, but they are unable to communicate with humans by means of speaking the same language.
Teddy Ruxspin - 1985
Tamagotchi - 1996
Furby - 1998
Aibo - 1999
FurReal friends - 2002
New Furby - 2005
New FurReal friends - 2006
The Furby shows some extent of human behavior. It is programmed to eat, sleep and play with children and talks in English. The 2005 edition of the Furby is even able to understand talk by voice recognition. It tells jokes and plays games with the child. It has an extended facial expression.
There are more robots on the market with human behavior. Here are some examples.
Rather non commercial version of robotics
Kismet is a robot made in the late 1990s at Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
"that engages people in natural and expressive face-to-face interaction. Inspired by infant social development, psychology, ethology, and evolution, this work integrates theories and concepts from these diverse viewpoints to enable Kismet to enter into natural and intuitive social interaction with a human caregiver and to learn from them, reminiscent of parent-infant exchanges. To do this, Kismet perceives a variety of natural social cues from visual and auditory channels, and delivers social signals to the human caregiver through gaze direction, facial expression, body posture, and vocal babbles. The robot has been designed to support several social cues and skills that could ultimately play an important role in socially situated learning with a human instructor."
Another humanoid robot is the Honda ASIMO. The ASIMO focuses less on expressive facial interaction; in fact it doesn't even have a human like face, so it can't show expressions. However, it has the ability to recognize objects or the capability to learn new objects. It also can read facial expressions of other people.
ASIMO isn't built in intention to simulate a real person, but rather the social interactive part of it.
A robot with a more anthropomorphist look is the Actroid, developed by Osaka University. At first glance it has the lifelike visual appearance of a young Japanese female.
It can mimic such lifelike functions as blinking, speaking, and breathing. The "Repliee" models are interactive robots with the ability to recognise and process speech and respond in kind.
Idea behind the Furby
To understand the meaning behind the idea of the Furby we have to go back to ancient times. It started with the domestication of animals. When animals were no longer considered as enemies or food by human, as they were domesticated to be kept for exploiting their own activities, people started to get a friendship with them and the animals slightly lost their utility function. They eventually lost their utility function during the industrialization, when machines took their jobs over. People started to keep animals as pets and started to get a close relationship with them, having them as a comfort object, as someone who understands them and protects them from loneliness. An example of this path of evolution is a dog, a domesticated wolf, which were bred for multiple tasks like herding sheep and for assisting in hunting, but are now mainly considered as a pet.
Pets are also important for the development of children, as pets play an important role in the development of the identity of the children. Children even get a closer relationship with pets than adults. They learn about responsibility towards their pet, but also learn how to associate with living beings through respectful behavior toward the pet. If they don't treat the pet well, the pet will give such a reply to them, it will literally show fight. When their pet dies, they will be prepared for the most tragic moments in their further life.
The next step in the evolution was the cuddly toy. For example, the introduction of the teddy-bear was a huge success. Children were able to take them with them all the time, and it is more manipulable as a pet, as it does not struggle with the child. Because they are so impersonal, they are very useful to project all fantasies on them.
With the introduction of better technology, toy designers introduced electronic toys on the market. After time this was integrated with electronic pets, of which Furby was one of the most successful attempts launched on the toy market. Essentially it has the same functions as a teddy-bear, but now with the option to attain sensory input and give limited feedback on social interactions to the children. It fulfills the same function as a good old living pet, but with the ability for children to carry them with them and with the feature of a safe and user friendly 'emotion', a combination of a teddy-bear and a real pet. But still it is rather a toy, because it cannot die and it will not behave different when it gets ignored, thus making it not very lifelike.
The Furby was original designed for small children for ages around 4 to 6. Around that age, children tent to play fantasy games with their toys, while completely vanishing in their role. This includes games like playing a mother and raise children, or playing a policeman and catch thieves. The toy helps children to start a relationship with things and objects in de world outside, preparing it for the adult world by growing towards an own identity. When kids get little bit older this role-playing games decreases and their play activities get more mature, like board games and video games.
At these ages children develop very quickly. A child develops by playing, but no child plays to develop, he just plays because it is fun. Playing is about the experience, discovering and repetition so experience and insight will develop. To accomplish this toys have to be challenging. If toys are not enough challenging, children will be very easy tired of looking at it. This happens when toys have very limited functions. Toys mainly have to be fun, not to have an educational role, although some parents prefer those kind of toys. But as young children get many stimulants and impressions daily, toys help children to process these activities. If they learn something from it, it is much to the good.
It has also to be taken into consideration that parents are the ones who buy the toys for their children, so there should also paid attention to their wishes. These wishes can involve
The Furby is quite complicated to start with. The 2005 edition needs clear instructions about how to enable the speech function. It has to be activated first with a command, the further limited options can also only be enabled with specific commands.
Because of the strict regulations regarding safety it is
Complaints and disadvantages/Limited function
The functions of the Furby are very limited. It has only limited sensory input, so it is not able to communicate or react in a natural way. It is not very challenging
The voice recognition function in the Furby is a bit flakey. The first version of Furby doesn't even have voice recognition, but reacts on loud noises in the environment. The 2005 edition of the Furby does have speech recognition, but this has to be activated by shouting "Hi Furby!" first and is only usable in quiet environments. Although the manual describes that you don't have to over articulate or speak louder, because it is just a normal friend like any other, it is unavoidable when the Furby doesn't understand you for a few times. There are only a few commands that can be understood, which has to be spoken perfectly to execute the command. It happens often that a speech command is misinterpreted for another command, thus performing another action.
List of requirements
The next Furby (2010)
Move on place
The next Furby?
Head and torso
Improvements user interaction
The problem of the Furby is that he is not very conscious of his environment and has limited (facial) expressions. Because of the limited technology put in it, it does not seem like it is making contact with the environment, but it really looks like a computer providing limited output on strict commands.
Apart from the speech recognition, the original Furby has more sensory input as the newer version.
For example, the 2005 edition of Furby is not even able to get any form of visual input from the environment. Although it has eyes, it cannot see anything, what can be considered as a strange thing. The reason there are humanlike eyes can be attributed to intention to make the Furby anthropomorphic . The original Furby is able to differentiate dark and light environments by using an IR sensor; the newer edition is essentially a step backward by missing this function.
Like stated previously, the newer Furby is fit with a simple speech recognition function. His older brother is also equipped with a microphone, but it is only able to distinguish if there are sounds surrounding them or not, like an on/off switch. However, this rather simple function contributes a lot to the lifelikeness of the Furby, because it reacts on sound activities in the environment. The newer Furby has lost this function, it can only react on strict commands he hears. The result of this is it really acts like a computer, like typing commands on a computer, and looks far from alive.
The feedback to the user is limited. Most of the feedback is mainly and only given by speech, in synchronization with its mouth, and sometimes with a little bit motion of its lifting device.
The expressions of Furby have improved over time. But still, it is not possible to read expressions of its face, when it performs an action this is a little bit easier to spot on the 2005 version of the Furby. Its eyes can only be closed and also his mouth can only be opened and closed, the corners of his mouth cannot be moved to show expressions with it
There is also room for improvements regarding motion. The old Furby is only able to lift itself up, the newer Furby is only able to wiggle a bit, but all of them are not able to move any much more. It are very static objects, as they are not able to move from their place. It can only stand to one side and is not able to look to another direction.
The newer Furby also lacks motion sensors. ???
Problems: Caused by: Solution
The behavior of the different kind of Furbies is quite similar. They are build upon the same base, talking Furbish at the beginning and speaking more English over time, eventually reaching the stage of "fully" talking English with some Furbish phrases or words now and then.
They all show the same lifelike functions as sleeping, eating and winking with their eyes.
They show the same humanlike or childish performance, by dancing, telling jokes (only the 2005 edition) and playing games. However, these jokes and games are limited to only a few ones. It happens quite often that the Furby tells three of the same jokes in a row, making it not very challengeable to play with them.
In general, its behavior is not very extended and quite linear, thus not very unpredictable. The higher the contingency, the more lifelike and more importantly, more interesting it is considered by humans. Lifelikeness is important to make it possible to interact more naturally with the child, thus more challenging. There has been a lot of research to human-like natural communication of robots. They often showed the effective usage of body properties in communication, for example head movements, facial expressions and arm gestures.
One of the biggest concerns is that the Furby is rather a technology marvel than an enjoyable piece of toy.
One of the biggest plus points already available is the furry skin, making it very attractive to take the Furby in your arms and cuddle it. But when doing this, you realize it is not as soft and flexible as a normal teddy bear for example. Also it is quite heavy in comparison to other cuddle toys available. Not only the Furby with its electronics weigh very much, but also the four batteries placed in it takes up a lot of weight. Therefore it cannot substitute a teddy bear, and is not very suitable for children of a very young age.
The current Furby of the first generation looks a lot more like a bunch of packed electronics, with a hard casing and a thin furry top skin layer on it. The newer Furby looks a bit less like a packed bag of electronics, as it looks like it has a head separated from his belly, but is still very heavy (heavier than its brother) and very hard skin, apart from the same furry top layer.