From the app-based Nickster to the electronic building blocks of Littlebits, toys are making leaps and bounds in cool factor. Launched this morning on Kickstarter, Toymail is the latest and greatest new digitally-enhanced plaything. In short, they're walkie talkie-like characters with the ability to relay messages from parents/grandparents/friends to the child who owns the toy. How it works: Anyone who downloads Toymail's free app can leave a message on one of the toys. Users dial in a toy/child to send a message to, talk into the phone (just like leaving a voicemail) and push send. The receiver is alerted by an animal noise—if their Toymail is a pig, it oinks when a message is received—and can respond directly to the message by pressing a button. The video below shows the toy in action:
Cofounders Gauri Nanda and mother-of-three Audry Hill were looking to create a toy that brought kids and loved ones together. "I started asking myself, 'Could toys be made to evolve every day and what would that look like?'" says Nanda. "I felt that it was time for toys to feel more like they do in Toy Story and Pee Wee's Playhouse, so that they never become boring or obsolete. So that they would grow as the child does."
Sketches from character development and prototyping the toys.
Toymail came together after discovering a gap in keeping loved ones together remotely during in playtime. The hard part was considering all possibilities for Toymail and then narrowing all of the ideas into one simple playtime solution.
For example, with the design of the app we started with the simplest possible concept, to send messages from an app to a toy. The user interaction and design evolved from there, growing increasingly more complex. There was something romantic about using elements of a US Post Office into the design and we ran wild with that theme for a while. Then we stepped back and realized that the user interaction was too cumbersome. The design was pretty, but not parsimonious, and we had lost what it was we wanted to do in the first place. So we took the design back down to its more essential parts.
Social toys aren't groundbreaking in terms of playtime, but the idea of creating a vessel for people to inject their own personalities into the toy is pretty intriguing. "I approached Audry with this concept and while it sounded like the future of toys, neither of us knew what it would be at that time," says Nanda.
Once we started to collaborate it became clearer. We didn't want to go the route of artificial intelligence, or something highly technical that might not work very well. And then we realized that there was no better way to create evolving content than by letting the users do it. And those users, the parents, grandparents, cousins, aunts, friends, what have you, have character already built in. This is when we decided that toys should be social.
Nanda is the designer responsible for that highly annoying (and incredibly efficient/successful) Clocky alarm clock. You know, the one that runs away from you blaring its wake-up sound until you manage to yank yourself out of bed and chase it. This time around, Nanda tackled a new design element she hadn't encountered with Clocky: app design. "Everything else from designing to prototyping to manufacturing, to IP protection, logistics, sales and marketing, I had ample experience from Clocky," she says. "You still have to keep up with things, learn the current state of the tools. There are so many more resources now for designers and entrepreneurs than when I began with Clocky."
Choosing a way to transfer messages to the toys wasn't easy, either. After using an option that required extra add-ons, the duo decided to go with Wi-Fi chip. The same in-depth research went into choosing the animals for the toys. "We sketched out hundreds of animals and picked our favorites," she says. "Some morphed into our base shape of a mailbox easier than others. We also wanted to choose atypical animals. I suppose we want every thing we do to be fresh."
Nanda and Hill may have developed the concept, but it was Hill's kids who assumed the all-important role of actually playing with the toys through every step of the prototyping process. Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles have also been involved in this testing, seeing as they'll be the ones sending the messages.
Nanda's close relationship with Hill's daughter pushed the concept even further. "She was three at the time and not so easy to get on the phone," relates Nanda. "And she certainly can't pick up a phone and dial my number. The Toymail app would allow me to send a message to her anytime from anywhere in the world, and she could reply whenever she chose to." None of that Furby-esque nighttime babble—Toymail has a single alert for when a message is received and that's it. The toy will continue to interact with kids throughout the day by greeting each user by name and with age-appropriate messages. Toymail features "open-ended play," meaning the possibilities for playtime are endless. Besides sending voicemail, Toymail also lets you apply effects to your messages: "You can use them to wake someone up by sending a song to get them up in the morning. My favorite thing to do with these is to sing songs because the filter options are absolutely hilarious."
But in a world that's stuck behind a screen most of the time, is Toymail a way to bring family and friends together or does it add yet another layer? "The common trend with technology is to create something that puts you in front of a screen," Nanda notes. "Toymail is part of a growing movement in the 'Internet of Things' where we put the smarts into physical objects. We can put our technology into any character we like, make any traditional-looking toy say something new every day. And that's just the beginning.
"The emphasis is on staying connected away from a screen, [to not be] isolated in play. Our toys characters' become a composite of all the people in a child's life."
So what makes Toymail more than a more kid-friendly Walkie-Talkie? Nanda has faith in the future of digitally social playtime. "The Walkie-Talkie might be considered a predecessor in some ways," she admits. "But with the technology that we have available today, we are really just now able to approach the concept of social toys connected around the globe. People create the content of these toys, and we're excited to see how that will make the toys evolve."
Check out Toymail's campaign on Kickstarter.