You may already be familiar with ToyTalk entertainment applications for iOS devices, but you may not be aware that the startup is led by former Pixar CTO, Oren Jacob (whose claim to fame includes titles like Toy Story 1&2, A Bug’s Life, and Finding Nemo) and Martin Reddy (who came to the company from SRI, which you know better as Siri). The company’s aim has moved toward creating mobile media experiences for children that allow for full interaction with the characters; kids speak and the games actually hear and respond! The first paid app from ToyTalk is a little more simplistic, in the form of a character-driven touch and play app, called SpeakaLegend –but it’s just the start of things to come.
Where Siri responds to basic instructions, ToyTalk’s digital apps intend to actually engage children in conversational stories; an amazing feat when you consider how much more difficult it is to analyze and understand what kids are saying (compared to adults). “At the fundamental level, the pitch is in a higher register typically,” describes CEO Oren Jacob. “Because of that, the software that exists to recognize adults’ speech doesn’t always work with kids.”
As part of their toolkit, ToyTalk has created a method for writing character dialogue that contains a considerable library of possible responses to the types of things kids might say or answers to the questions they may ask –and they plan to share this technology with children’s story writers (instead of just app developers) Jacobs is excited by the work they are doing, explaining that “speech recognition for kids has really not been built by anybody, so part of what we’re doing – what are partners are developing – is developing the language and acoustic models for children to open up that space.”
In SpeakaLegend, ToyTalk added touch but was concerned that children would interrupt the natural flow of dialogue within the app. Their answer was to evaluate the events that would naturally cause this behaviour, using the example: “When the dinner party lights go out, you have to comment on that. When someone drops a fork, no one cares.”
With over $15 million in seed money getting them started (with more likely on the way), ToyTalk may revolutionize the way children’s games function. Just imagine the educational potential with customized learning apps built in any and all subject areas (and to supplement any curriculum).