Mattel, the American toy brand and creator of Barbie, has announced a new Internet-connected version of the doll that can talk and converse with its user. Not everyone is impressed by Barbie's new cloud-based technology — privacy advocates believe it permits spying on children, by Mattel or anyone who can access the company's servers.
"Hello Barbie" is built with Wi-Fi and a microphone that allow the doll to chat with kids about a number of topics. Whereas much of today's technology — such as Siri and Cortana — involves a gadget's ability to "speak" with its owner, concerns arise with children's toys. For one thing, privacy advocates think the toy makes children vulnerable to what they describe as Mattel's "sneaky" tactics.
"Kids using Hello Barbie aren't only talking to a doll," said Susan Linn, the director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. "They are talking directly to a toy conglomerate whose only interest in them is financial."
Apart from the talking feature, "Hello Barbie" can also store the conversations it had with the child and send them over to the parents as audio files every week.
Golan Levin, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University who is currently studying new modes of interactive expression, sees the invention as "downright creepy."
"The difference between Siri and this toy is that I'm an adult," said Levin. "I've consented to give my information to Apple."
One of the demos showed Barbie asking a girl questions like her name, her likes and dislikes. Linn believes that children reveal a lot about themselves when they have conversations with their dolls and other stuffed animals.
"In Mattel's demo, Barbie asks many questions that would elicit a great deal of information about a child, her interests and her family," said Angela Campbell, a law professor at Georgetown University. "This information could be of great value to advertisers and be used to market unfairly to children."
However, ToyTalk — Mattel's partner company in creating the talking Barbie — insists that conversations between children and their Barbie dolls will never be used for marketing purposes.
"Mattel is committed to safety and security, and Hello Barbie conforms to applicable government standards," said Mattel.
"Hello Barbie" is scheduled to hit the stores in Fall 2015.
PHOTO: Mike Mozart I Flickr