Furby Returns – Parents' Nightmares Follow

After nearly fifteen years of therapists working tirelessly to wrestle the hellish apparition from the nation’s collective psyche, Furby is back. While the Hasbro team is excited to debut the toy’s new app features and design, the public seems to have the same reaction to Furby’s rerelease that they had after watching the tenth Jason […]

After nearly fifteen years of therapists working tirelessly to wrestle the hellish apparition from the nation’s collective psyche, Furby is back. While the Hasbro team is excited to debut the toy’s new app features and design, the public seems to have the same reaction to Furby’s rerelease that they had after watching the tenth Jason movie. Which goes something like – “We thought it was dead! How many times do we need to kill it?”

Seem a little harsh? If so, you’ve obviously never owned a Furby.

When the toys first hit shelves in 1998, they quickly reached Tickle Me Elmo status on the “likelihood to draw blood on Black Friday” meter. They disappeared immediately from toy stores and quickly infiltrated homes across the world. And if you don’t think “infiltrated” is the right word, you’ve obviously never owned a Furby.

The animatronic creatures could flap their ears, snap their beaks, and blink their restless glassy eyes, all while making noises and speaking a language called “Furbish.” They’d react to touch and sound, snoozing when left alone, and even striking up a conversation with other Furbies when placed near each other. Gather a few Furbies in a small space and they’d begin to conspire, whispering your name and gesturing towards you with murderous eyes. Well, it seemed that way, anyway.

Ask anyone who grew up in the 90s and they’ll likely have at least one sleepover horror story of a Furby powering up from deep within a closet, striking terror in the hearts of a room full of tweens as its dying double A batteries combined with its Furbish to produce a death rattle that sounded like the gates of hell might be opening from behind a New Kids on the Block sleeping bag. It’s an experience some of us will never forget, and it’s one Hasbro is hoping to inflict on a new generation of bright-eyed kids.

Welcome Back Furby

Hurdling a mountain of middle school nightmares isn’t easy, but once you do, you may find yourself face-to-face with a startling realization – the new Furby is kind of, well, cool. With a bright new coat and LED eyes, the toy looks a lot less like an extra from Gremlins and a little more like an extra from Sesame Street – definitely a step in the right direction.

Its range of motion has improved as well, and it can even recognize and dance to the beat of music. The toy also comes with new apps that you can use to play with and feed it. Just stack up a sandwich on your iPhone, then point it at Furby and use your finger to “flick” the meal into Furby’s gaping maw. He’ll react by making chomping noises and voicing his thanks in his native Furbish language. All pretty neat features, and they should be when you consider the price tag of $80 for each electronic toy.

The Future of Furby

So why are the minds behind the Spark network taking an interest in the Furby’s reincarnation? Good question. Part of it is likely linked to middle school trauma and a masochistic need to relive the emotional scars inflicted on us by a chirping animatronic army of nightmare creatures. But that’s mostly conjecture. More than that, we’re interested in the toy because we see a reflection of the Furby in one of our funded projects – Character Therapy.

Character Therapy is a project from Interbots in connection with the Autism Center of Pittsburgh. Through the project, the robotics experts at Interbots have worked to create a kid-friendly animatronic robot named Popchilla. Like Furby, Popchilla moves, talks and interacts with kids. It shares the same other-worldly cuteness (and we may be biased, but we think Popchilla is a lot more welcoming and a lot less scary than the beak-snapping Furby) and like the Furby, it can even interact with mobile apps. However, unlike Furby’s functions which are focused solely on play, Popchilla has another goal in mind – helping children with autism.

With his motions, noises, and even his glowing eyes, Popchilla helps teach communication, emotional awareness and other important life skills. For children with autism, grasping these concepts isn’t always easy, and learning becomes even more difficult when kids have trouble connecting to parents or caregivers.

That’s why the Interbots team created Popchilla – so he could serve as a medium between adults and autistic children. Kids who are nonverbal or who struggle with communication are far more easily engaged by a fuzzy glowing robot from outer space than they are by, say, a therapist pointing to a picture book. And when children are interested and engaged, learning becomes not only more easy, but more fun.

Unfortunately, Popchilla and his accompanying new app Popchilla’s World are still in the research and development phases. So until the day when Popchilla makes his exciting debut, lovers of fuzzy robotic puppet-pets will have to satisfy themselves with a new Furby instead.

Of course, the choice of whether or not to adopt a Furby is a very personal one, one that we won’t presume to make for you. But if you do decide to bring a Furby into your home, just promise to do one thing – promise you’ll keep an eye on his battery life. There’s no need to subject another generation to the satanic swan song of a Furby’s last dying breaths. So for the love of all that’s good and pure, keep those Duracells fresh. Not just for us, but for the kids. 

 


Published August 30, 2012