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Tech toys train tots for a troubling tomorrow

Mike Elgan | Feb. 24, 2015
Toys always reflect the larger culture -- its biases, fears and, most of all, its technology. New York's Toy Fair 2015 happened this week, and the latest round of new tech toys is bringing some of the most disturbing tech trends to children.

Toys always reflect the larger culture — its biases, fears and, most of all, its technology. New York's Toy Fair 2015 happened this week, and the latest round of new tech toys is bringing some of the most disturbing tech trends to children.

The themes includes surveillance, virtual reality, artificial intelligence and even mind control.

Let's take a look at this years most disturbing crop of tech toys for kids.

Surveillance Barbie

Mattel announced this week that it's working on a new doll called Hello Barbie. The new, $75 toy will be able to hold conversations with its owner and even learn things by using voice recognition.

Hello Barbie is a little like Apple's Siri, Google Now or Microsoft Cortana. When the child talks to Barbie, the voice is recorded, uploaded to a server somewhere, processed, then an appropriate reply is sent back through the doll, which has to be connected to a home Wi-Fi network in order to function.

The speaker and microphone are housed in Barbie's necklace. Each of her legs has a rechargeable battery. Barbie will go for an hour between charges.

But here's the disturbing part. Recordings made by the child are uploaded and stored on a server run by a company called ToyTalk, which is Mattel's Hello Barbie — at least if Hello Barbie functions like ToyTalk's other products.

The ToyTalk system will also email the recordings of their child's conversations to parents. Parents can also set limits on allowable topics of conversation.

In other words, Hello Barbie prepares children for a world of pervasive surveillance, where their most intimate communication will be uploaded to a central server somewhere, processed by remote servers, then used by an all-knowing authority to monitor and control them.

The Matrix Junior

Mattel and Google partnered on a new version of the View-Master.

We all remember the original View-Master, those plastic 3D binoculars that show pictures from a cardboard wheel.

The new version is based on Google's Cardboard virtual reality platform.

Like Google Cardboard, or for that matter Samsung's Gear VR headset, Mattel's new View-Master relies on a smartphone to provide the screen, camera, microphone, motion sensors and more.

This class of VR headset, which relies on a phone, is much cheaper than most. In Mattel's case, the new View-Master will cost just $29.99. Mattel will make a free app to go with it, although the View-Master will also work with any Cardboard app.

The main benefit of the actual View-Master product, or any other Google Cardboard device, is that it uses lenses to focus each eye on a separate panel on the screen, which creates the illusion of 3D.

Google Cardboard in general, and Mattel's new View-Master in particular, are both virtual reality and augmented reality. It's virtual reality when all visuals come from the app. It's augmented reality when the smartphone's camera is used to combine actual video from the camera with virtual objects supplied by the app.

 

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