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In through the outfield blog

12 November 2012

Furby, the interactive toy®

Furby® was a short-lived fad back in 1998 as the first popular computerised pet, and has now been relaunched in time for Christmas.

The patent for it, Interactive toy, is one of the most interesting patent specifications ever written, with lots of detail on how Furby® “thinks”. Here are its main drawings.

Furby patent drawings

Co-inventor David Hampton has said he knows what he would have done if his parents had given him one on his ninth birthday. "One, I'd take the fur off. Two, I'd open up the case, the shell. Three, look at everything as it's working— that way I can see how everything is tied together. Four, I would start disassembling the circuit board. And, if I really succeeded," he continued, "I would put it all back together and it would still work." Even when he was young, the family basement was littered with a dozen broken radios which he would fix for a few dollars, sometimes in the middle of the night.

The relaunch may have meant modifications, but the original Furby® was a 13 cm high mechanized ball of synthetic hair that looked like a penguin metamorphing into part owl, part kitten.

It had a 200-word vocabulary in a language called Furbish and could squeal if the lights went out, snore and sneeze. Hampton was an inventor of toys and medical products who lived with his family in a remote California forest. During the craze he lived in anonymity to avoid frantic parents demanding the toys, which flew off store shelves and fetched ten times their suggested $30 Internet retail price. One source suggests 40 million units were sold.

As soon as he left high school Hampton had joined the navy, specialising in aviation electronics. This led to jobs in Silicon Valley, including one designing the video game Q-Bert and another in product development for Mattel. He went on to form his own design and consulting company, Sounds Amazing, when in 1997 he visited New York for the annual Toy Fair trade show. The big hit there was the (unpatented) interactive, digital pets known as Tamagotchi. Existing on tiny electronic screens, the toys required their owners to feed them and clean up after them by pushing buttons, or death soon resulted.

Hampton saw a fatal flaw. "You can't pet it." Returning to the workshop at home, he began listing what he wanted from his ideal virtual pet (working name, Furball). "I started a script like, if you rub his back, he'll purr,” Hampton said. He also gave Furby® a language, an amalgam of the languages he had picked up while travelling in the navy. Using a crude circuit board, he brought its scratchy voice to life. A former colleague from Mattel, Caleb Chung, created the mechanics.

Within ten months of the fair, Hampton had sold the idea to Tiger Electronics. A crude model was shown at the next toy fair, linked to a generator. Soon it was on its way as the latest hot toy. One unhappy owner, admittedly, put his “Furby Autopsy” up on the Web, complete with a toe-tagged "crime scene photo". "Frankly," the owner and self-described scientist wrote, "we find him much more amusing dead than he was alive."

Hampton has seen the site. "My first thought was, 'That's what I would have done," he said. "The other side of me said: My baby! They're dissecting my babies!' "

A lot of thinking went into the toy. They wanted to keep the retail price down to $30, so some shortcuts were used. Instead of costly communications circuits -- the kind that permit wireless messaging among various computer devices -- Furbies exchange crude infrared signals between themselves to produce giggles and “goofing” sessions. The silicon brain is a low-cost Asian variant of the chip that powered the original Apple II. Using cams to get the eyes and ears to move was both cheap and a compact way to do it.

Furby® has trouble doing two things at once, and that's good, since carefully crafted software rules give the illusion of complexity. Talking always takes priority over listening. So Furby® sometimes seems a little unresponsive -- like many children. While he is in motion, the sound sensor automatically switches off, which saves battery power and prevents its motor noise from confusing the sensor. The vocabulary is small, but words get combined in ways that even the inventor never predicted.

If you continually say one of hundreds of programmed words like "love" and "friend" they will be learned and repeated back to you. The eyes show emotions, and a flexible beak smiles or frowns depending on how often you pet it.

To avoid imitations, designs were applied for showing normal the look of Furby®, and if he was stripped of fur. These are, respectively, US D423611 and D419209. Below is an image from D423611.

Abstract

What surprised me was that Hasbro had apparently let the US trade mark (but not the European marks) lapse, and a number of applications were made on the 20 July 2012 for the word. 

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