Bonnie Cha

A Kids’ App That Entertains With Talk, Not Taps

For the past week, I’ve been talking out loud to my iPad — a lot. My conversing with inanimate objects might not come as a complete surprise to those who know me well, but even they might be shocked (concerned?) at the things I was yelling at my tablet. “Fruit bat!” “Pickup truck!” “Corn!”

But I haven’t gone off the deep end just yet. Instead, I’ve been testing a new interactive kids’ app called The Winston Show by ToyTalk.

Created by former Pixar employees, The Winston Show is an entertainment-focused app for children ages 4 and up, though there is a small educational aspect to it. It centers around a variety show hosted by a friendly yellow blob named Winston, and your child gets to be the star of the show. The app is free, but it requires a Wi-Fi or cellular connection, and is currently only available for the iPad.

Since many kids today interact with smartphones and tablets, the main goal behind The Winston Show is to engage children through conversation and not just through a series of taps and swipes on a screen. The app does so by using a combination of speech-recognition technology and artificial intelligence to get Winston to listen and reply to your child’s responses.

Overall, I found The Winston Show to be an amusing and captivating app that’s much more personal than some other interactive kid’s toys I’ve tested, like Talking Friends Superstar. When I let a couple of my friends’ kids play with it, they enjoyed telling Winston about their favorite sports, participating in quiz shows, and helping with story time.

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But it wasn’t all fun and games. The app’s microphone button didn’t work on a few occasions, and it crashed several times. And, while its voice-recognition capabilities are more advanced than those of other kid’s apps out there, it has limitations. Still, it’s worth a look.

As soon as you download and launch the app, it asks for parental permission for children under the age of 13, and requires an email address for confirmation. This is because ToyTalk captures and uses audio recordings to continually improve responses, and it also stores photos from the app’s costume-dress-up section, so families can enjoy them later. The company says it takes privacy seriously, and, for concerned parents, offers a pretty comprehensive FAQ about what data is stored and shared. The app is also compliant with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

Once you’ve completed that process, you’ll be greeted by Winston and his sidekick Ellington, a little orange ball that only speaks in gibberish, but is cute nonetheless. Then, you’ll be asked to perform a microphone check by pressing the mic button in the lower right-hand corner. Whenever you need to respond to Winston, you need to press this button.

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The Winston Show is split into five different sections: Win with Winston, Fireside Chats, You vs., Costume Department, and Writer’s Room.

Fireside Chats offers kids an opportunity to chat with Winston about a variety of topics, such as sports and family. Using the iPad’s camera, the app also shows your child’s face onscreen next to Winston’s, so it feels more like a personal interaction. When my friend’s 7-year-old son first tried it out, he immediately smiled and said, “Cool.” Winston then asked him about his favorite playground activity, and he replied, “Swings.” Winston continued the conversation by asking him if he’s ever swung really high and jumped off.

Now, at this point, you might be wondering, how in the world does Winston know how to respond? Is there someone just sitting on the other end listening to replies and answering back? The answer is no.

As ToyTalk’s co-founder Oren Jacob explained it to me, their team of writers creates responses based on what they think will be the most popular answers (kind of like a game of “Family Feud”). The actor who provides the voice for Winston, then records the reactions, and whenever the system detects a trigger word, such as “swings,” it then sends the appropriate response.

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Still, there are always surprise answers, and if the app doesn’t recognize any words, Winston tries to give a more generic response and move the topic along. I found that it works in most cases, but not always. During a fireside chat, Winston asked me, “What’s your favorite kind of ice cream?” and I answered “Coffee.” But he kept asking me the same question over and over again until I said something more common, like vanilla.

I really only stumped Winston once, though, with that ice cream question, and ToyTalk said that it’s constantly monitoring feedback and frequently adding to the list of possible responses.

Other activities include Win with Winston, a game show where you’re given multiple-choice answers on an array of topics. You vs. is another type of quiz show, where the player goes up against a variety of challengers, ranging from historical figures, like the Wright Brothers, to a blue whale.

My friend’s 6-year-old daughter and I had fun answering questions, and even learned a few things (did you know a group of owls is called a parliament?). She also got a kick out of Winston’s silly responses, and I liked that Winston always offered positive feedback.

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For example, during a break between questions, Winston asked how she was doing, and my friend’s daughter said she was sad because she had homework. Winston replied that he understood, but that school was important.

Writer’s Room is kind of like the old Choose Your Own Adventure books in that you help Winston decide the outcome of stories. This was a lot of fun to do around the kids’ bedtimes, but we were a little disappointed that the stories ended pretty quickly, depending on what option we chose.

What was more frustrating, though, was that the microphone button stopped working on several occasions, often when trying to answer a question a second time. The app also crashed on me twice. ToyTalk said it will be pushing out an update to fix some of those bugs.

Despite these issues, The Winston Show is a fun app that puts some of the focus back on actual conversations and the exchange of ideas, rather than staring at the screen. It’s also something the whole family can enjoy.

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