Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Inside ToyTalk, the Startup That Wants to Bring Toys to Life

One of the great promises of technology products is to push forward both art and science together. But all too often that just means nice design in a gadget, or nifty effects in a performance.

Team ToyTalk, with CEO Oren Jacobs on the left, outside their office in San Francisco.

Norma Cordova Team ToyTalk, with CEO Oren Jacobs at front left, outside their office in San Francisco.

A startup called Toytalk seems to be setting itself up to transcend that multidisciplinary barrier, especially given its two founders’ pedigrees at Pixar (Oren Jacob was CTO there) and SRI (Martin Reddy researched artificial intelligence there before joining Pixar as well).

Later this year, ToyTalk plans to release an iPad app starring a character named Winston that converses with children.

I had a chance to tour the ToyTalk office and sit down with Jacob last week. His simplest description of the startup’s project: “We’re building an entertainment company on the back of synthesized conversation.”

The actual ToyTalk app will be an episodic variety show in the style of “The Muppet Show,” starring Winston and other characters, Jacob said. Kids will be able to join the show by turning their cameras on. “Imagine if you could Skype with Bugs Bunny,” Jacob said.

Squeezed into an alley in San Francisco’s SOMA district, ToyTalk’s small office houses 18 people. Half of them work on engineering: Artificial-intelligence projects like speech recognition for kids’ voices, new authoring tools for writing scripts that can go in many different directions, and building the app itself. The other half work on creative. They include writers, the first sound guy for Guitar Hero and the voice talent himself (a former server closet has been turned into a sound studio).

Still from the ToyTalk teaser video

Still from the ToyTalk teaser video

The ToyTalk app will personalize for each child, and it will also be updated over the air — say, with current weather or major sporting events. It’s also meant to be funny and entertaining. And hopefully natural. “The ultimate goal is raw, free-form conversation, like Terry Gross or Charlie Rose,” Jacob said. “But we’re light years from that.”

Because ToyTalk is becoming somewhat known (it has raised $16.2 million from Greylock Partners, Charles River Ventures, True Ventures and First Round Capital, among others), but hasn’t released anything beside a promo video yet, there seem to be some misconceptions about what the company is doing, Jacob said. He said he wants people to know that, one, ToyTalk is not a robot company; and two, ToyTalk is not a physical toy manufacturer (well, not yet — maybe if Winston gets super famous like the Angry Birds).

So how will Jacob be able to tell if ToyTalk is working? You know how many of today’s kids are confounded by device screens that don’t respond to touch? He said, when kids start thinking it’s weird when a character doesn’t talk back to them, that’s when.

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald