Over her nearly 60-year life, Barbie has taken on many forms, but she’s never been a hologram.
Now, though, she is having a truly out-of-body experience, showing up in her first holographic figure, Hello Barbie Hologram. Barbie parent company Mattel unveiled the semi-translucent and chatty AI figure, which lives inside a pink plastic box, on Friday at the New York Toy Fair.
This is far from Barbie’s first brush with AI. Mattel introduced Hello Barbie artificial intelligence inside a physical Barbie doll in 2015. She was a particularly powerful digital assistant, engaging in conversations about interests, favorite foods and telling jokes. A year later, the AI showed up in Barbie’s first smart home, The Hello Barbie Dreamhouse, where, using voice commands, you could ask the house to give Barbie a ride on the elevator and customize the lights.
Unlike previous Hello Barbie AI’s, Hello Barbie Hologram is designed to be a true digital assistant and will engage on the trigger words “Hello Barbie.” The AI offers speech recognition and is designed to answer questions about the weather, news and is ready to do “anything a digital assistant can do,” a Mattel representative said.
As we approached Hello Barbie Hologram, it was quite clear that she isn’t a true hologram. What we were seeing, a Mattel exec told us was a prototype using “just an effect, there are no lasers.” I could clearly see a 4-inch tall hologram-like Barbie dancing in the box, but it looks like a projection against a diagonal piece of semi-translucent glass. The final product will also be a faked hologram without lasers. To demonstrate Hello Barbie Hologram’s capabilities, they had us shift our gaze to a giant box on display next to the little box.
Out of the darkness emerged a person-sized Barbie hologram, which used the same technology to display as the smaller prototype. While much of the interaction between the Mattel spokesperson and the holographic Barbie appeared to be scripted (at one point, the hologram didn’t even wait for the spokesperson to finish her line), it was also clear how a child might engage with their night-stand-dwelling personal assistant.
When asked “What’s the weather in Malibu today?” the holographic Barbie walked over to a window that suddenly appeared, looked out, gave us a weather report and added that it was perfect flip-flop weather. A child can even use Hello Barbie Hologram to set reminders. When asked to do this, the hologram takes out her virtual phone and makes a note.
Hello Barbie Hologram is also just as diverse as real-life Barbie, and Mattel demonstrated how, with voice commands, you can change Barbie’s skin tone, ethnicity and body type.
They also showed how Hello Barbie Hologram could act as a sort of playmate, dancing on command and, yes, even dabbing.
Having a Wi-Fi-connected always-listening digital assistant in your child’s bedroom might be cause for concern, and Barbie is no stranger to controversy. In 2015, watchdog groups took Mattel to task for the way it was handling the audio recordings it used to interpret and answer queries. At the time, Mattel told the Washington Post they were “committed to safety and security, and Hello Barbie conforms to applicable government standards.” They also made it clear to Mashable that they expected children to turn off Hello Barbie when not in use. This time around, the company does not plan to store any of the conversations with Hello Barbie Hologram.
The Hello Barbie Hologram assistant, though is intended to stay on and listen for “Hello Barbie.” Mattel wasn’t clear on how long Hello Barbie Hologram will listen before she turns off.
“We are still exploring how long the listening window will be to provide the optimum conversational experience for kids,” the Mattel rep said, adding that Hello Barbie Hologram is not always listening.
But that leads us to wonder how the hologram can hear the trigger phrase. In addition, nothing will be sent to the cloud unless it’s preceded by “Hello Barbie,” according to Mattel. Hello Barbie Hologram relies on PullStrong for its AI, natural language processing and IoT connectivity to, according to Mattel, “create a safe, cloud-based platform for girls.” They will also use 256-bit encryption for all the data the AI does manage.
Parents, who set up Hello Barbie Hologram via an app, will have some customization control, but it’s too early to say if they will be able to set a listening schedule (for example, “Stop listening or responding after 8 p.m.”). Mattel says parents can turn the device off at any time via the power switch.
Hello Barbie Hologram will ship this fall. Pricing has yet to be set.
Ride ’em, Barbie
The Barbie Dream line is also expanding in the physical realm with a new animatronic horse naturally called Hello Dream Horse.
Large enough for a typical Barbie doll to ride, the white stallion with a long-flowing golden mane can walk and even dance on its own to three different songs. The Dream Horse, which you get to name, features realistic horse sounds and can even fake eat plastic carrots (you hear a chewing sound). It’s also touch- and voice-sensitive (ask the horse if it’s having fun and it will nod its plastic head).
We got a quick demonstration in which a few things became immediately evident: Dream Horse doesn’t move all that smoothly and it lacks any kind of visual sensors to keep it from galloping off a table.
Even so, it’s probably the most active toy horse Mattel has ever created for Barbie. It also arrives this fall and will list for $99.99.