Just like her clothing, accessories and overall physique, the real estate interests of Barbara Millicent Roberts, a fun-loving video game developer with about 200 pets and a 3.75-inch waist, have evolved over time.
Introduced in 1962, Barbie’s first official residence was a studio apartment made from cardboard. While certainly not lacking midcentury flair, such modest domestic trappings simply weren’t cut out for a modern girl in need of expansive closest space. And so, chez Barbie began to grow bigger, pinker and more plastic. There was the tri-level townhouse; the planter box-bedecked tract home with a steeply pitched roof; the Queen Anne-style fixer-upper boasting bay windows and stained glass; the tricked-out McMansion with enough square footage for Babs to entertain a sizable coterie of bendy-limbed fashionistas and hangers-on. (I'm looking at you, Teresa).
Over the past few years, Barbie’s housing situation has been more or less in flux. A 2011 request for proposals from the AIA sought new Dreamhouse designs (must-haves included a home office and ample shoe racks) which, to be honest, was an odd request considering that Barbie herself was a practicing architect at the time.
Two years later, there was the much buzzed-about sale of Barbie's longtime Malibu digs — “the only home in Malibu with a self-flushing toilet and fireplace that crackles even when it’s not on” — for a cool $25 million. Barbie’s decision to sell seemed a sensible one. After all, she'd just broken out the pink space boots for a sweet new gig with NASA. Who needs Malibu when you have Mars?
Now Barbie, restless soul that she is, is once again packing her boxes and organizing her handbags for a move to another newfangled Dreamhouse. It’s a contemporary abode awash in various shades of pink that’s cutting-edge, intuitive, connected. A house with brains. A smart home.
Unveiled this past weekend at Toy Fair 2016 in New York City, the Hello Barbie Dreamhouse is a $300 Wi-Fi enabled dollhouse sporting many of the same smart home features that you’ll find in dwellings not designed for a doe-eyed dilettante standing just under a foot tall: customizable mood lighting a la Philips Hue, voice-controlled appliances and, umm, a staircase that converts into a slide. As for the elevator (Barbie's had a lift on and off since the early years), it also harnesses voice recognition technology, ascending and descending on command.
Elaborates Mashable's Samantha Murphy Kelly, who had the chance to witness the app-connected dollhouse in action before it hits stores later this year:
Similar to how Siri works with Apple HomeKit-enabled products and how Amazon Echo syncs up with its own collection of gadgets, you make verbal requests, such as telling the home to give Barbie a ride in the elevator, asking it to turn on the virtual oven to get breakfast started and getting the mood set for a party (the lights flash on, the chandeliers spin and the stairs turn into a slide). The lights will also react to the command, 'Hello, Dreamhouse. Turn on the bedroom light.'
Light control features go beyond voice control too; by pressing a button built into the floor of each room, it "wakes up" the area so it knows you're ready to play (e.g. the fireplace will turn on if the living room button is activated). This is how the room knows when Barbie is nearby and can react accordingly. It requires a power source, so you'll also need to set it up near an outlet.
While Barbie’s move to fully automated doll digs was inevitable, it’s curious timing for parent company Mattel considering the negative reception that Hello Barbie herself received when introduced late last year.
The below headlines pretty much sum up the not-so-friendly greetings encountered by Hello Barbie, a stylish (her outfit "blends trendy and techie for a cool look") gal with Siri-like powers who, instead of coming complete with three wardrobe changes and a pet giraffe, is equipped with a charging station and “more than 8,000 lines of pre-recorded content."
Keep in mind that many of the parents quick to denounce Hello Barbie came of age during the era of “Child’s Play," Teddy Ruxpin and government secret-stealing Furbys. Of course some parents — even early adapters quick to embrace emerging technology — whose own Strawberry Shortcake-scented childhoods were permanently scarred by sentient dolls will have an adverse reaction to Hello Barbie.
You see, Hello Barbie listens to and learns from whatever her human playmate says to her. These intimate conservations between child and doll are recorded and transmitted to a secure server in the cloud where ToyTalk — an “award-winning entertainment and technology company that combines art and science to enable conversation with characters” founded by a former Pixar executive — analyzes the conversations as part of an effort to further improve Barbie's vocabulary and enrich the overall experience.
Writes tech columnist Kim Komando for USA TODAY:
Security researchers have revealed flaws in the network that Hello Barbie's creators use to upload a child's recorded conversation to the cloud, where the phrases are processed using artificial intelligence, so that Barbie's response simulates an actual conversation. Security researcher Bluebox says the potential weakness could let hackers listen to the recordings.
Plus, given the way Hello Barbie connects to Wi-Fi, a hacker can trick the doll into connecting to a rogue hotspot. That lets a hacker hear what your child says, and possibly even send Barbie new things to say. You might end up trying to explain to your child why Barbie is swearing or making threats.
In their defense, Mattel and ToyTalk have addressed the security concerns while making it clear that Hello Barbie is not perpetually eavesdropping. Rather, she works more like a Wi-Fi-enabled walkie-talkie in that a user must physically hold down her belt buckle for her to record a conversation, a conversation that, ideally, is about cupcakes and puppies, not Mommy’s Amex number and Daddy’s date of birth.
And even if Hello Barbie isn’t, by default, a malicious corporate eavesdropper — the highly detailed seven-page FAQ that comes with the doll sets out to set the record straight and dispel any worries — critics have also noted that by equipping Barbie with a script, one vital component of playtime is largely neglected: imagination.
Noting that Hello Barbie “undermines creative play,” Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood, a nonprofit crusading against Hello Barbie, argues: “Dolls have always talked — through the power of children’s imaginations. Children should use their own initiative and creativity to hold conversations with a doll, impart a personality, and build their relationships. With Hello Barbie, Mattel and ToyTalk’s programmers and algorithms drive the conversation, undermining the creative play that is so critical to children’s development.”
Parental concerns aside, it's kids who should be wary of spilling the proverbial beans to Barbie. While Mattel and ToyTalk have assured parents that their children's recorded conversations are secure, this also means that the private tête-à-têtes between doll and child are readily available to parents for monitoring. Gone are the days of confiding in Barbie with your inner-most dreams, desires and frustrations. Hello Barbie is a snitch. Madison, did you tell Barbie that I was a big, fat, mean witch again? Big Brother may not be watching, but mom and dad are certainly listening in.
This all said, will the Hello Barbie Dreamhouse be DOA when released later this year? Is smart home technology one trend simply not fit for the eternally trendy Barbara Millicent Roberts?
Perhaps it's too early to tell. But given the backlash against Hello Barbie, a complementary connected dollhouse may not soon replace the low-tech pink plastic palaces traditionally populated by Barbie and friends.
And even if a smart home isn’t in the cards for now, there’s always Barbie’s newest must-have mode of transportation, also introduced this past weekend at Toy Fair: a pink hoverboard drone.