These Pixar Veterans Want Your Kids to Talk to Their Apps

SpeakaLegend Courtesy ToyTalk

What if your kids could talk to animated characters the way you might talk to Apple’s Siri software? That’s the goal of ToyTalk, a startup founded by two Pixar veterans to build apps in which children converse with animals and fantastical creatures. Their latest, called SpeakaLegend, hits the App Store today.

That may not sound particularly innovative since tech companies have been developing speech-recognition software for years. But previous efforts have tended to focus on the way adults talk, which differs from the prattle of children. ToyTalk’s software is designed to understand the pitch, cadence, and intonation of kids.

“At the fundamental level, the pitch is in a higher register typically,” says Oren Jacob, one of ToyTalk’s cofounders. “Because of that, the software that exists to recognize adults’ speech doesn’t always work with kids.”

Since last year, when ToyTalk rolled out the well-reviewed Winston Show—the first app to engage kids in conversation with characters—the company has amassed more than 20 million recordings of kids on which to build its speech-recognition platform. All conversational snippets are collected only after receiving parental permission. Parents can even play back what their child says to the characters and submit highlights for consideration in the editor’s picks section of ToyTalk’s website.

Monitoring how the kids respond also helps the company update the apps, sometimes tweaking jokes and punchlines on a daily basis. SpeakaLegend, the startup’s new $2.99 app, builds on what the creators have learned about how kids talk with the characters and which personalities young users like best. The team noticed that kids would often try to touch the animals, so in Speakalegend the whole screen is touchable. Users can interact with the various creatures (feeding fish to the Loch Ness monster, for instance) and alter their environments (switching from daytime to night, in the case of the Cyclops).

These new features posed some serious challenges for the developers. How could you add touch without interrupting what should feel like real dialogue? Minor events caused by kids wouldn’t necessarily require comment from a character, but dramatic shifts would need to interrupt the conversational thread. “We make different judgment calls,” Jacob says. “When the dinner party lights go out, you have to comment on that. When someone drops a fork, no one cares.”

Jacob worked at Pixar for more than 20 years, including as the technical director of Finding Nemo, before leaving in 2011 to found ToyTalk with Martin Reddy, a Pixar colleague with a Ph.D. in computer science and artificial intelligence. The real equity of the company ultimately comes not from selling apps but from its cloud-based platform, which recognizes what children say and chooses an appropriate answer from an array of possible scripts, just as Apple does with its un-animated Siri assistant included in iPhones.

ToyTalk’s platform makes the company potentially valuable—a fact not lost on venture capitalists: Its first round of financing, led by Greylock Partners, attracted $4.1 million; the second closed with $12 million from Charles River Ventures.

Jacob says that one of the immediate goals is to convince kids that dialogue can be entertaining. He also sees an opportunity to use the speech-recognition software to teach development skills like language and reading comprehension. Outside of the educational space, ToyTalk has already begun working with other companies to bring non-ToyTalk characters into conversation with kids. “We’re ultimately successful in the years to come if there are a whole lot of characters talking to a whole lot of families and having fun doing it,” Jacob says. “A bunch of those are our characters and a bunch of them are ones that are out there and we already love. That’ll be a cool world to be in.”

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