PITTSBURGH Interactive electronic playmates like Microsoft's Barney and Arthur ActiMates, and the popular stuffed Furby are much more than toys; they are redefining computer-human interaction and are helping to shape the future of computer interfaces.
That's the assessment of two experts on human-computer interaction, B.J. Fogg of Stanford University's Persuasive Technology Lab, and Allison Druin, University of Maryland professor and researcher at the University's Human-Computer Interaction Lab.
Both researchers participated in a panel session on the good, the bad and the ugly of high-tech interactive toys at CHI 99, the Association for Computing Machinery's Conference on Computer-Human Interaction in Pittsburgh last week.
Interactive toys speak or make noise in response to a stimulus, sing and interact with children. Along with the television and the PC, they help shape the way children think and behave, the researchers contend. The toys also offer a model for what future computer interfaces will be like.
"These technologies are helping to redefine computer-human interaction," said Druin. "They have an interface that begins the moment the child sees the toy," said Druin. She said eventually we may engage in the same kind of interaction with computers.
It's not about making computers more human, but about removing the barriers between humans and computers, added Fogg. "Where we're headed is more about making the interaction seamless. That includes [incorporating] embedded computers into objects like toys, cars, etc.," said Fogg.
Like interactive toys, not all future computer interfaces will be alike. Druin explained that some interactive toys tell children exactly what to do and leave little room for exploration. Other toys are more open-ended and exploratory, offering children a way to be creative storytellers. For example, Furby lets kids explore possibilities by letting them train the interactive stuffed animal to do a variety of things.
While open-ended interactive toys let children be more imaginative, they can also allow children to express more negative behaviors, Druin said.
What effect a toy has depends on the child and the character the toy represents, Fogg believes.
"Interactive toys can provide good role models, like teaching a child politeness and how to deal with other people, but it also puts a burden on the technology," he said.
"It creates a whole new dimension of user interface we have to worry about," Druin added. "The character carries baggage." That "baggage" can include subliminal messages about behavior. Fogg described an interactive female doll that says, "If you find a mess, I didn't do it."
This might seem innocuous, Fogg said, but it sends a message that dishonest behavior is acceptable. Another doll talks about her hair looking stringy, behavior that "tells girls they should be concerned about how they look," said Fogg. He believes future interactive toys like Bart Simpson, South Park and the Power Rangers characters might have negative influences on children that are much more obvious, encouraging behavior parents don't like.
In addition to toys, Fogg and Druin envision interactive characters that one day will be used to sell products, ideas and political candidates to adults. "It'll all be about product placement and the character will be all about selling" said Fogg.
Corporations might capitalize on the ability of interactive characters to sell products. Fogg envisions an interactive doll that will be designed to sense when it is approaching a fast-food restaurant so that as it gets closer to the restaurant it says something like, "Mmm, I smell french fries. I'm hungry. Aren't you?"
Fogg even believes there will be interactive characters that promote sex and violence or groups that use interactive toys to promote a type of thinking. In Fogg's Persuasive Technology Lab, researchers try to design the most evil things they can think of, then analyze how they affect people. They try to anticipate problems associated with the technology and then educate the design community about them.
"It's really sobering and instructive [to study the persuasive potential of technology]," Fogg said. "You can't underestimate the power of a toy." With the fragile minds and hearts of children at stake, Fogg and Druin believe designers of interactive toys, EEs included, should feel a sense of responsibility for how their technology and creative ideas are used.
"Engineers often feel removed from the end products they contribute to," said Fogg "They [engineers] really enable the product for the end user and should feel either proud or remorseful about what they've developed."
Fogg, an experimental psychologist, said studies show that kids think interactive toys are alive and those toys shape childrens' behavior. As a result, toy builders should be held accountable for the actions of the toys.
Fogg and Druin both believe people in the computer industry and those involved in computer-human interface design should work to make sure the toy industry keeps those things in mind.
"Every time an engineer enables a feature [on a toy] that changes the character, there is an influence on a child," said Druin.