• Dr. Timothy Smith

Barbie Is Getting Smarter


Mattel Corporation stands as the largest toy manufacturer in the world (based on revenue) and provides many toys for children, including Matchbox Cars, Fisher Price toys, and the truly iconic Barbie doll. Since Barbie’s introduction in 1959, the doll has been at the center of many controversies and simultaneously has been a beloved toy for millions of girls around the world. According to Mattel, over one billion Barbie dolls have been sold worldwide, making Barbie by far the most popular fashion doll of all time. As a fashion doll, Barbie has also drawn criticism for creating unrealistic expectations of beauty. In response to the criticisms following Barbie, Mattel continues to innovate and improve the doll. The fact page on Barbiemedia.com reports that Barbie has had over 180 inspirational careers and that over 50 fashion designers have designed for her. In addition to Barbie’s appearance, Mattel has sought to technically innovate Barbie over the years. Following Mattel’s launch of the world’s first talking doll “Chatty Cathy”, Barbie was given a voice in 1968 that was activated by a pull string at the back of her neck. Advances in manufacturing and technology also contribute to Barbie’s evolution, including a WiFi-enabled Barbie introduced two years ago called “Hello Barbie”.

“Hello Barbie” employs many advanced technologies that allow her to talk, listen, and carry on a conversation with young girls. “Hello Barbie” uses artificial intelligence for voice recognition, machine learning to tailor conversations, and cloud computing to process and store all the information needed to personalize each person’s experience with Barbie. Later this year, Barbie will take another major step further into the digital world when Mattel will launch a new more intelligent holographic Barbie for the Christmas rush. For the first time, Barbie will leave the physical plane and become available as an interactive, dancing, talking, three-dimensional hologram. Instead of the famous doll that girls can play with and share with their friends, holographic Barbie will live in a clear plastic box atop a base that sparkles with LED lights and is emblazoned with the name "Barbie". Check out some of the early prototypes of the playset on YouTube to see some remarkable technology that will make Barbie the first “holographic, digital friend for little girls.” The prototype shows a moving, dancing, and configurable Barbie that will know a girl’s name, make conversation, and even remember past conversations to really act as a friend. The hologram can also be customized with a simple command of “Hello, Barbie. Will you change my Barbie?” the Barbie hologram will change its ethnicity, body type, and clothes. Also, Barbie is connected to information available on the web. So, you can ask what the weather report is, and Barbie will tell you and even recommend what to wear that is appropriate.

Since holographic Barbie can dance and hold conversations but now has lost all physicality, is it still a toy in the traditional sense? When I was little, I remember my sisters and their friends playing with Barbies for hours, even days, on end building elaborate scenes with houses, animals and cars. I did not take part, but I know that they were immersed in play with scenarios and conversations. Toys as simple as a few wooden blocks or dolls made of plastic or cloth function as a conduit to a limitless world of imagination. With Barbie going digital, will the Barbie digital friend still have the capacity for such limitless play? It remains to be seen once holographic Barbie is released to the public if the users will see her as a new piece of tech or an actual toy. Holographic Barbie may usher in a new era of digital toys or represent the departure of Barbie from the realm of toys and into a digital AI persona.