talking toys

Exploring What Makes a Great Talking Toy

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With the emergence of new technologies every year, it’s important to look at the role that toys and tech play in the lives of children. How can manufacturers create toys that appeal to today’s generation of children?

The easy answer is that children like to interact now, more than ever with smart devices. So to design a toy that meets the needs of today’s children, we have to become more innovative – one way to do this is to have your product speak to the consumer, literally. What we’re referring to of course, is talking toys.

Enter character voices. This is where the voice actor truly shines and is given a plethora of challenges including voicing multiple diverse characters for talking toys, bending the limits of their voice, and digging deep to create unique and authentic voices that will resonate with their audiences on a large scale. Did you know that there are actually adult voice talent that specialize in crying like a 3 week old baby? From iPad board games to learning app for kids, the voice actor reigns supreme when it comes to character voice-overs, especially characters for toys.

These voice-overs are also some of the most memorable. Think back to your favorite toy when you were a kid. Did it have a voice and could speak to you?

This is also one of the most competitive fields of voice-over because of the caliber of talent performing and the prestige of the characters that they portray.

If you are a toy designer or creative agency wondering how to market talking toys to children, it’s important to first know what makes a great talking toy and where the future of talking toys is headed.

Why Are Talking Toys So Popular?

Talking toys provide a level of interactivity that a child craves. Interactive toys benefit children by helping them develop skills that are crucial to their development.

4 Skills Interactive Toys Help Develop in Children

1. Motor Skills

Interactive toys help in the improvement of a child’s motor skills by developing particular parts of their bodies such as their arms, fingers, hands etc.

Example: A great example of a toy that develops motor skills is Fingerlings. Fingerlings are monkey dolls that encourage kids to perform different actions, such as patting the doll on the head to make it do different sounds and actions.

2. Social Skills

Some interactive toys ask children questions that require a response. These types of toys help children develop their ability to think through questions and answer them in ways that make sense to their counterparts.

Example: Great examples include games that can be played on smart devices that require a response from the children such as Esme & Roy – an interactive game using Alexa (read more below).

3. Language Skills

Interacting with toys allows children to learn new words and properly string together sentence structures. These types of interactive toys are especially helpful if you want your child to learn another language (maybe one that is not your first language).

Example: LeapFrog’s Chat & Count Smartphone is an example of an interactive toy that gets children practicing their language skills and learn how to communicate effectively.

4. Cognitive Skills

Cognitive skills need to be mastered from a young age. Having an outstanding mind is good, but for everyday interaction, logic is needed. Cognitive skills can be developed through games that include memorization and recognizing colors, numbers, shapes etc.

Example: LeapPad – an interactive device that allows children to work through different math, language and other problem solving equations.

What Makes a Great Talking Toy Voice?

We now know how talking toys came to exist and why they are becoming increasingly important, but if you are a client looking to hire a voice for a toy, or a voice over talent looking to land the role – what should the toy actually sound like?

Voice actor and coach Shelly Shenoy, who was recently the voice of a toy robot named ZEST, has a few tips and hints on what makes a great talking toy voice.

Using the robot Zest as an example, Shelly describes her voice as ‘adult-sounding, cool, hip, edgy and maybe sometimes a bit silly.’

More and more, clients are looking to create talking toys that sound realistic and make the toy relatable to their target audience. If you are looking for the perfect talking toy voice, you should be mindful of the fact that the end audience/user will want to hear a natural sounding voice.

“In the audition routine for toys, a lot of [voice] actors automatically revert to a very old-school cartoony character, but it seems more often than not [the client] is looking for very real voices,” says Shelly.

Shelly believes that you can book a toy gig by first having a bit of training in animation voice over, as most of the time you will be putting on a character voice for the toy (note: Character voices are not the same as cartoony voices).

After the training, there are two key things you should pay attention to.

  1. Research

“Look up the company and past toys they’ve created, and [listen] to what those toys sound like,” says Shelly.

  1. Pay attention to the ‘givens’

“Pay attention to what I call ‘the givens,’” says Shelly. “What does the toy look like, what are the specs, what is this for?” Additionally, other qualities like how old the toy is, where the toy is from and the lines they speak can also reveal a lot about how their voice should sound.

The Future of Talking Toys

We can expect sales of interactive toys to continue to grow, especially as technology advances. Annual smart-toy sales worldwide are expected to grow from about $2.8bn in 2015 to $11.3bn by 2020, according to UK-based analyst firm Juniper Research.

Companies like Xandra are looking for innovative ways to integrate learning and play for children with smart devices. Xandra has created interactive games in combination with 360i and HBO for children called Esme & Roy that is one of Amazon Alexa’s new skills.

“We’re a voice-first platform, we really needed to lean into the audio. This is all about using audio and sounds and dialogue and character to make that connection to the user,” says Xandra’s CEO & Founder Zach Johnson.

Esme & Roy is a game geared towards younger children around 3 years of age. Because this is a time when children are still working on their communication skills, the game has been developed with their level of ability in mind. For instance, if the child is unclear in the directions or responses that it gives the game, Esme & Roy won’t ask the participant to repeat themself. Instead the game will keep the story moving in order to make the user feel like they are the ones that have agency in the game. Since younger players are also still working on their articulation skills, the voice match functionality – which registers the users response in order to judge if their answer is right or wrong – is a little bit more forgiving. It doesn’t have to be a perfect match in order for the child to get the question they are being asked correct. The same game design and interaction can be applied to older users, who also may require a bit more time to correctly answer each question and play the game at their own pace.

“[The game] is really using audio to give kids a sense of where they are in a skill and give them an audio cue when input is expected,” says Johnson.

If the answer is correct, you get a happy response from the character. If it’s incorrect, you get constructive feedback, and often humor is used to deliver this.

But what about the voices of the characters? If the game is being played through a smart speaker, such as Alexa, is the voice that of Alexa? The answer is ‘no.’ The voices of each game are unique, distinct, and voiced by voice actors.

In the case of one of Xander’s SpongeBob SquarePants games, the characters’ voices are provided by the original voices actors from the show, in order to preserve the ‘fidelity of the characters.’

So what is the future of gaming for children? “I think as the technology of both software and hardware continues to advance and improve, it’s on us as an industry and as designers to figure out how to best work in those mediums and those channels,” says Johnson.

The Evolution of Talking Toys

You can’t talk about the talking toys of today and of the future without looking at the origin stories of talking toys. The first types of talking toys were dolls that came into manufacturing right after the Industrial Revolution. Since then, toy manufacturers have been working to make dolls that are more and more lifelike and offer interaction and companionship. Toys moved from simply being able to speak, to interacting on a much more profound level with children who play with the toy.

1890: Edison’s Phonograph Doll

This doll was invented by Thomas Edison. It included a removable phonograph that allowed the doll to sing one nursery rhyme each time the handle was cranked. It spent more years in the experiment phase than it did on the seller’s market and was not considered a great success. The voice didn’t sound natural, and it was sold for the equivalent of $200USD today! Customers also had an issue with the fact that the doll’s mouth did not move when it spoke.

Voice Used: The story goes that the voice was the voice of a female who had worked in the factory. She had recorded a few phrases to be used as the doll’s voice.

Although not successful, the doll did however, get the gears turning for other manufacturers to follow suit.

Hear Edison’s Talking Doll for Yourself in this Video 

1960-1990: More Advanced Talking Dolls

During the next 30 years, talking dolls saw quite the advancement. Dolls like Chatty Cathy (designed by Mattel) contained strings, that when pulled, allowed the doll to utter various phrases. Chatty Cathy had 11 pre-programed phrases.

Voice Used: The success of this doll is often attributed to the fact that the voice of Chatty Cathy dolls was actually the voice of popular voice actor, June Foray, known as the voice of Grandmother Fa in the hit Disney movie, Mulan, as Rocky in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and many other characters over her 85+ year career.

2000s: My Friend Cayla

My friend Cayla was labelled as the world’s first interactive doll by manufacturers. The doll connects to the internet via Bluetooth and functions through voice control, much like Apple’s Siri. The doll also comes with its own app that can be used to play games with her.

Voice Used: The voice used sounds a bit more robotic but is meant to sound like a 7-year-old girl. It uses text-to-speech technology to respond to and interact with the user.

Present

Today’s talking toys have advanced from talking dolls to include much more interactive toys referred to as ‘smart toys,’ whose sole purpose is no longer just to provide companionship. Today’s toys involve a much more sensory experience that enables children to learn something from them.

Think of devices like Leap Frog that include gamification and allow much more user interaction and learning.

Need inspiration for your talking toy voice? Check out these talking toy sample scripts to get started.

What interactive devices do you have or have you come across? Share with us in the comments!

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