Let me just state for the record that no cats were harmed in the writing of this column. That said, I had a blast this week subjecting a couple of frisky felines to pillow fights, dog farts and dunks in the shower.
But before you call PETA on me, I should tell you that these cats were electronic children’s toys. They’re called Talking Friends Superstar from a company called OutFit7, and come in three characters — Tom, Ginger and Angela. I also checked out another toy called Ubooly, an adorable orange creature that resembles a Furby.
Both Talking Friends and Ubooly work with mobile apps that bring the plush toys to life with interactive activities, like games and storytelling. Of the two, I liked Ubooly better because of its more educational and imaginative content. But both are fun ways to entertain your kids, and augment the game play of smartphones and tablets.
Designed for children 3 years and older, Talking Friends had me giggling like a little schoolgirl. I had both Talking Tom and Talking Ginger, but they’re pricey at $50 each. Each toy operates on three AAA batteries and features controls on the cats’ bellies that blast jokes and different songs over the built-in speaker. (For parents, the important “volume down” and “power off” buttons are on the right side.)
I also downloaded the accompanying Talking Tom Cat 2 and Talking Ginger apps, so I could control the dolls from my iPhone 4. All the apps are free (they’re 99 cents if you want the ad-free version) and work with iOS and Android devices.
When used with the apps, each cat offers a different set of features, but I found Tom the most entertaining. He’s the victim of many pranks at the hands of Ben the dog, another Talking Friends character who exists in the app. You can make Ben fart behind Tom’s back, or hit him with a pillow. You can also pet him or slap him — poor kitty.
After selecting an action, you’ll see Tom’s reaction onscreen as well as from the doll, in the form of audio feedback. For example, when Ben releases gas, the Tom toy responds, “Seriously?” Or when Ben surprises his buddy by popping a bag, Tom yells, “Bennn!”
Not surprisingly, the farting action was quite a hit with children. My friend’s 6-year-old son repeatedly pressed the button for a couple of minutes, while he and I cackled the whole time. Unfortunately, his mom’s laughter quickly turned into an evil glare aimed directly at me (oops).
What’s nice, though, about Talking Friends is that there’s no set-up. The apps and plush toys connect to each other instantaneously, without any need for Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. OutFit7 says they are able to do so using high-frequency sound technology.
The dolls can also interact with each other. For example, there’s a storytelling app called I Want to Be Big that’s compatible with Tom and Ginger. They’ll take turns reading sentences and make sound effects together — a nice option if you have more than one kid.
While Talking Friends is designed for fun, Ubooly also adds education to the mix, which I really liked. The plush toy costs $30, while the app is free. Currently, it only works with the iPhone and iPod Touch, but an Android version is coming soon. The company is also building a bigger toy that can accommodate the iPad and iPad mini.
Ubooly comes to life once you insert your smartphone into the stuffed animal. Your phone’s display becomes its face, and after waking it up with a tap of the screen, it says, “Hello, what do you want to do?”
Using voice-recognition software, it can understand simple commands like “yes,” “no,” “play a game” or “tell me a joke.” In my testing, there was a slight delay between the time I gave a command and the time Ubooly started the action, but I didn’t find it to be a major problem.
If you don’t give it a command, it will offer some suggestions or start sharing random thoughts and facts. My favorite was, “I just can’t get into dubstep.” You and me both, Ubooly.
Though it’s designed for children between the age of 4 and 9, I was completely mesmerized by it. I listened to its stories, and learned new facts about animals and nature. I even pretended to go on an underwater adventure with the toy.
When I gave Ubooly to my friend’s son, he didn’t have that same immediate “this is fun!” reaction that he did with Talking Tom. Instead, he took more time with it, learning its various functions, and eventually got into it. With the activities, I could see he was using more of his imagination and listening to the facts, which was cool to witness.
Also, because Ubooly was more engaging, asking a lot of questions along the way, he played with it longer than Talking Tom. The only downside is that you might be without your smartphone for a while, but it did get the thumbs-up from mom.
Ubooly can play music, too. But parents should be aware that it accesses your smartphone’s entire music library, so if you have any songs with explicit or inappropriate lyrics, you might want to monitor that. It caught me off guard when Ubooly started blasting Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It.”
Ubooly’s co-founders said they are working on a feature that will allow the toy to filter songs with profanity, and to only play songs assigned to an Ubooly playlist. The list of activities also continues to grow, as the company adds new features every month for free.
Kids today are going to grow up seeing smartphones and tablets as entertainment sources, but their activities shouldn’t be limited to tapping at a screen. For parents looking for ways to bring back more physical interaction into playtime, Talking Friends Superstar, and Ubooly in particular, are great ways to do it.