A Talking Teddy Bear With Artificial Intelligence? ToyTalk Raises $16 Million For Toy Wonder

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When you're a San Francisco startup looking to raise millions in funding and your secret weapon is a talking teddy bear, you better come ready to impress. Apparently, ToyTalk did just that.

Though little is known about the talking teddy bear, the interactive iPad app, whatever artificial intelligence is involved, or even the company itself, it recently put out a teaser trailer while raising $11 million in Series A funding, bringing it's total raised to $16 million, according to Venturebeat.

The trailer suggests way more than it actually reveals as well as being a bit heavyhanded with how much a child will love spending free time with Toy Talk instead of other technology options:

Now let's face it, a talking teddy bear that interacts via a tablet sounds like an idea that a few young entrepeneurs would come up with, make a pitch with a prototype on Kickstarter for $20,000 to develop the first batch, and then return a year later to crowdsource teddy bear 2.0 for $150,000.

Not ToyTalk -- this company is going old school by assembling a host of highly talented tech industry veterans.

Back in February, ReadWrite profiled some of the staff onboard. It starts with ToyTalk founder and CEO Oren Jacob, former CTO at Pixar. Also from Pixar is Creative Director Bobby Podesta and Michael Chann who works on visual tracking software. Then there's PhDs like Martin Reddy, who worked at the company that originally worked on the virtual assistant Siri, and Brian Langner, who serves as Senior Speech Specialist. The head of operations, Renee Adams, is from Apple's retail development and logistics, former product manager for the blogging platform Moveable Type, Byrne Reese, is heading Customer Development, and the Director of Scalability, James Chalfant, contributed to the platform that serves 30 percent of HTTP traffic in the world, Akamai Technologies.

You get the picture...lots of tech industry experience covering the wide gamut of skills to run a successful tech startup in 2012.

But is it overkill? The answer to that all depends on when ToyTalk finally launches its product described as "Teddy Ruxpin meets Siri".

While there's no way to know for sure, here's what all of this suggests: the company is working on interactive toys that use a mobile app and tablet to be the eyes, ears, and brain (along with its connection to the web), providing for visual and language recognition as well as intelligent responses. The toy itself (the bear from the video) is likely not a robot, but perhaps has sensors or accelerometers in it that provide feedback wirelessly. Whether the toy talks, the tablet talks, or both, remains to be seen. Based on the background of many involved, the emphasis is likely more on storytelling than games or interactive play alone, like Kinectimals, for instance.

Now that's speculation but it's just a matter of connecting the dots. One of the big dots is the amount of money seeded into it already, which is still secondary to the impressive resumes of the 14 highly skilled people who've come together to build this technology.

So while we await the unveiling of ToyTalk's 21st Century Winnie-The-Pooh, we can look ahead a bit to see what technologies like this may do for artificial intelligence, especially when it comes to sidestepping the potential social difficulties people may have with robots. The brilliance of the company's approach may be that it capitalizes on the rapid adoption of mobile technology by keeping much of the tech in the tablet and utilizes a stuffed animal for comfort, familiarity, and basic social development that is important to younger children and those who suffer from social disorders, like autism.

This approach just might be the winning formula to take steps toward robots that house their artificial intelligence internally. After all, kids would probably love a smart teddy bear but if it had cameras embedded in it and moved like animatronics, it might freak everyone out.

ToyTalk is now in the development stages, and hopefully the teaser trailer means that a product will be announced soon.

David J. Hill

Managing Director, Digital Media at Singularity University
I've been writing for Singularity Hub since 2011 and have been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. My interests cover digital education, publishing, and media, but I'll always be a chemist at heart.

Discussion — 7 Responses

  • igus November 14, 2012 on 1:50 pm

    Would be good if my kids could put any one of their stuffed toys in front of our iPad and the toy becomes animated and listens and talks on the screen. Take the iPad camera and microphone, add some augmented reality and some AI, and that might actually be possible (?)

    Anyway, it would be cool if that was what is planned. I only thought of this as my little boy (6) asked me the other day if there was anyway to bring his toy ‘ducky’ to life. Maybe that is what ToyTalk are planning to do.

    • David J. Hill igus November 18, 2012 on 4:42 pm

      They’re definitely up to something that promises to be much more interactive and aware, using all the tech that an iPad has built into it. I also think that the appearance of “aliveness” will be part of this as well…after all, tehy only need to capture the imagination of younger kids to be convincing.

      For instance, FurReal toys don’t seem very real to me, but my kids like them because they can pretend they’re real. I guess in the end, kids like technology that meets them half way – they could just imagine a stuffed animal is real, but if it interacts more, then they don’t have to try so hard.

  • Yanis November 14, 2012 on 7:09 pm

    Using a tablet as an interface sounds a bit strange to me. As a kid, I would have preferred a smart walking and talking teddy bear, a la Artificial Intelligence.
    So yeah, I guess I’m still waiting for my Super Toys… 😉

    • David J. Hill Yanis November 18, 2012 on 4:37 pm

      I agree…as long as it was either very realistic or clearly just a toy. The issue is going to be that middle range, the Uncanny Valley problem. Then it will be creepy, kind of like Snuggle commercials if you’ve seen them. They freak me out. 🙂

  • Tracy R. Atkins November 15, 2012 on 6:41 am

    Teddy Ruxpin was a huge seller if i recall correctly. Even as simple and rudimentary as it was, kids went nuts for it. An updated version will probably be a huge hit. Heck, i would likely buy one for my 6yo daughter.

  • Ashley Conlan January 13, 2013 on 4:12 am

    Looking at the youtube its augmented reality. If this is the case its a huge let down. I know several start ups with 1000th less investment who are making mind blowing augmented reality. $16 million on that?! sorry :/

  • toyswill.com October 7, 2013 on 7:54 pm

    Maybe it can teach our baby to cherish every little things Because they will think they are all friends !