By Eric Wahlgren My usual take on electronic toys? Bah, humbug! Maybe they're all right for kids, but I'd rather watch a movie -- or heck, even do the dishes -- than play with some machine. And the fortune you end up blowing on batteries!
I was resigned to being a Scrooge when it comes to gadgets until I came across the 20Q, a battery-powered game that plays the old favorite 20 Questions. (For those of you whose childhood didn't include family car trips, that's the game where someone thinks of an object and the rest of the group gets to ask 20 questions to try to figure out what the object is.)
Now that 20Q has come into my house, reading before bedtime has gone out the window. I'm hooked. And apparently, so are a lot of other folks. The maker of the toy, Bermuda-based Radica Games (RADA), says 20Q is selling out at most major retailers across the U.S. I checked several retailer Web sites, however, and the product was still in stock.
ASTONISHING ACCURACY. There's no question that the product's modest price has helped make it a popular gift this holiday season. A small, round mass-market version retails for about $9.99. The slightly larger oval version -- about the size of an iPod or a deck of cards -- that I bought sells in stores for about $19.99. But I think the main reason the 20Q is such a big hit is because it really works. It's freaky.
When you play with 20Q, you decide on the object and the the machine tries to guess the right answer. The machine uses artificial intelligence to analyze your answers to questions -- for example, "Is it larger than a microwave oven?" -- and come up with successive questions to help it identify the object. For each question that crosses the 20Q's LCD screen in ticker-tape fashion, you can answer "Yes," "No," "Sometimes," or "Unknown" by pressing little buttons.
Since I first started playing with it two weeks ago, it has been right easily 80% of the time. In a recent binge of compulsive 20Q playing, the machine correctly guessed four objects in a row: asparagus, rhinoceros, fingernail, and credit card.
CONCRETE THINKER. 20Q's secret is its neural-network or brain-like ability to make connections that help it choose questions and make guesses, according to Radica. Robin Burgener, an Ontario, Canada-based inventor, developed an online version of 20 Questions (www.20q.net) that led to the 20Q. The pocket version, which was released in January, is based on all the intelligence gathered on how online players answer questions when they have a certain object in mind.
The odd thing is, 20Q's "vocabulary" isn't really all that big. It can identify about 2,000 objects. But Radica says that number represents about 98% of the objects users select when they play the game. Some of you are no doubt wondering just how broad that list is. Well, 20Q can guess some of the cruder objects that might cross your mind. I tried a few, solely in the interest of writing this review. But parents can rest assured that the 20Q is G-rated and will only guess using a family-friendly version of a word. After all, the game is suitable for children as young as 8, Radica claims.
The 20Q's weakness is in guessing intangibles. For instance, I tried "philosophy." After 20 guesses, 20Q came up with "language." Not quite. The game then asked five more questions. (When the machine guesses something wrong, it makes this last-ditch effort.) But even then, the best it could come up with was "emotion."
SNARK ALERT. Speaking of which, I have to admit there are things I don't like about 20Q. For starters, it gives itself a big head start. Some might call it cheating. As the very first question, 20Q always asks whether the object is an "Animal, vegetable, mineral, or other?" While that's the traditional way to start the game, that's FOUR questions, not one.
Another annoying trait? In between asking questions, the unit regularly flashes snarky little comments such as "You can't beat me" and "I'm gonna win." There's no way to turn this taunting off and I quickly got sick of it. Radica argues that 20Q's cocky attitude is actually a selling point. "If you want to play with 20Q, you have to deal with its banter," says Radica spokeswoman Patti Saitow.
Overall though, 20Q is a pretty big hoot for a pretty small price. I've bought five to give as gifts. Not convinced? Play the online version for free. What's cool about the Web one is that unlike 20Q, it "learns." If the online game fails to guess the object you've picked, it asks you to input the word, to help the machine figure it out the next time around.
INTERNATIONAL APPEAL? Saitow declines to specify how many handheld 20Qs Radica has sold. Although it's Radica's No. 1 toy this holiday season, Saitow says "20Q has some catching up to do" before it eclipses the company's all-time best-seller, Bass Fishin', a hand-held fishing game that has sold more than 15 million units.
The company is optimistic enough about 20Q's appeal that it's developing versions in Chinese, Spanish, German, French, Italian, and Japanese. Who knows if it will translate in other markets. But as far as the U.S. market is concerned, there's little question that 20Q is translating into "Ka-ching" for Radica. Wahlgren is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online