Article by Will Sacks, CoFounder of Kindara.
Editors note: Catch Carly at the Colorado Capital Conference on Oct 9th just before 11am. Her talk is right before Gov. John Hickenlooper’s keynote address. She will be discussing the market research and user experience research that helped make Ubooly so successful. Her talk is entitled “How to listen to the world“.
Carly Gloge has created the world’s smartest toy. Ubooly is a soft little orange fuzz-ball with an iPhone touchscreen for a face and an Apple processor for a brain. Gloge, whose team just graduated from TechStars Boulder in August, is betting that Ubooly will capture the imagination of children everywhere just like his intelligent predecessors Teddy Ruxpin (2 million sold) and Tamagachi (76 million sold).
I love Ubooly’s chances, because unlike his predecessors, Ubooly has a super-power: He is connected to the Internet through his iPhone brain. This means endless and exciting possibilities to create a toy that constantly changes and reinvents itself. Ubooly promises to be more fun, more educational, and more engaging than anything your kid is playing with now, and Gloge and her team are just getting started.
Gloge and her husband/co-founder Issac Squires first got the idea for Ubooly watching their friends’ children play with mobile devices. They noticed how engaged kids became and saw an opportunity. “We were being nostalgic about the toys of our generation” said Gloge “and we wondered. why isn’t anyone using this really powerful little device that’s becoming so prolific, in toys?”. So they started prototyping ways to merge the smarts of the iPhone into a toy that kids would love.
As a designer and a programmer, Gloge and Squires had to get outside their comfort zone to build the first Ubooly: they took sewing classes, “sculpted creatures out of clay for concepts” and tested the results with kids. And they serendipitously met Gavin Lee, their third team member, who brought experience sourcing parts for a Nintendo-licensed accessory line in Asia. “I feel like we’ve had a little bit of startup guardian angel along the way” says Gloge “We knew this is a pretty edgy idea”.
The original Ubooly had 30 pin connector and animatronic skeleton that allowed him to move, but when testing the team learned that kids focussed all of their attention on the screen and on their interactions with Ubooly, and mostly ignored the moving parts. So they simplified: removing the connector and moving parts, and focusing on the interface between the kid and the toy.
The interface they chose is voice, because speaking leaves the mind free to be “creative and imaginative”, two things that Gloge and Squires saw as lacking from current toys. The team integrated voice-recognition technology so that Ubooly can talk and understand responses. Watching kids interact with Ubooly, it’s clear this was the right choice. Kids treat Ubooly like a pet or a friend, and it’s clear they form a special bond with him.
Once the team had a more polished concept, their next step was to run a Kickstarter campaign to prove demand for Ubooly, and after a successful campaign they got accepted into Techstars in Spring 2012. After demo day in August, I sat down with Gloge for an interview in the Techstars office and she told me all the reasons she’s excited to be bringing Ubooly to kids everywhere.
Ubooly is unique because using his internet connection, he can adapt to the time of day, his location, world events, kids preferences, and even teach children material that parents want their kids to learn. One of the first smart features inside Ubooly is his ability to know and teach kids about current world events.
“We’re already written content that is date specific..and eventually we’ll have content that is based on world-news…Ubooly is a friend who happens to be very worldly” said Gloge with a smile.
And soon the team will have a web interface for parents where they can purchase content to be downloaded by Ubooly over the air. For example, if a child is struggling with math, a parent will be able to instruct Ubooly to focus on multiplication for a few weeks. Or if a family is planning a trip to Spain, Ubooly can become a stand-in spanish teacher a few weeks before the trip.
Ubooly will also learn to be responsive to how kids play with him. Activities that bore children will be played less often, replaced with new activities, or previous activities that kids have already shown they love. Right now this is being done at the aggregate level, but eventually it will be done for each child.
This responsiveness makes Ubooly more like a real friend than any other toy ever made. Ubooly will learn what each kid likes and adapt to be a better friend and teacher. As kids get older, Ubooly will grow up too, offering more advanced content and interactions, instead of ending up in landfill alongside so many million Tickle-me-Elmos.
Like most great ideas, Ubooly looks obvious in hindsight. And with his cuddly exterior, advanced voice recognition software and the internet for a brain, his potential to intelligently redefine the way our kids play is very real. It’ll be fun to see just how smart he gets.