They're cute and fun, they answer "Why" questions with more patience than most parents, and they keep kids occupied for hours on end. But are tech toys a danger for kids?
As internet-connected products gain in popularity with both children and parents, toy marketers are grappling with the challenges of selling products that could be hacked, opening the door to privacy concerns and PR disasters.
"If you're traditionally a toy company and now you're adding this layer of connectedness, you're wading into areas you know nothing about," said Michele Martell, an attorney who runs consultancy Martell Media House. "You're not a tech company, but you've become one because now you're an Internet-of-Things company."
No one -- not big players like Mattel and Hasbro nor independent startups like Wicked Cool, the company behind the Teddy Ruxpin reboot -- is immune to the pitfalls. While marketers already must conform to regulations laid down in the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, these new devices can go deeper and introduce issues many toy makers did not foresee, like children sharing connected toys that other parents have not approved, for example. Earlier this month, the University of Washington released a study on the issue, and found that toy designers need to better communicate with customers around the full capability and dangers of devices.
Security pitfalls aplenty
There's already been fallout. When El Segundo, Calif.-based Mattel this year released Aristotle, a smart baby monitor that grows with a baby to become an AI-type friend for children, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood public service group immediately denounced the $300 device as a "data-collecting intruder." Mattel declined a request for comment.
Aristotle follows in the footsteps of My Friend Cayla, a talking doll made by Genesis that records conversations. It was banned in Germany amid spying anxiety. VTech and Mattel's Hello Barbie have also had security issues in recent years.
"Most of the really hot tech stuff is interactive," acknowledged Chris Byrne, a toy industry consultant and content director for TTPM, which stands for Toys, Tots, Pets & More. "Whenever you have something that's about data and people are connecting data, there's a vulnerability there."
Some brands say that fully interactive toys are not always needed, especially for the youngest of consumers. Wicked Cool's Teddy Ruxpin, which connects to an app via Bluetooth, engages with kids via LED eyes and is primarily a storyteller, said Jeremy Padawer, a partner at the Philadelphia-based company. Wicked Cool also makes Baby So Real, a Cabbage Patch doll equipped with 40 different facial expressions to communicate emotions. Neither exist in an "open universe" connection that could fall prey to hackers, Padawer said.
"The more open the architecture, the more risk you introduce to the kid," he said. "Baby So Real is a baby doll that's not going to engage with a 12-month-old on policy."