It was hysteria, pure and simple. They'd line up for hours, even days; they'd bid ten times or even a hundred times its price just to get their hands on one. Rich or poor, if you had a child, you had to have one. The voracious demand led to sales of 20 million units in just two months, making it the most popular new toy of the decade.
I'm talking about a small, furry, and frankly rather cute toy called the Speeky; and behind this deceptively simple object lies a complex combination of crowdfunding, outsourced manufacturing, international politics, and five million freelance actors.
A Speeky looks very much like a teddy bear of old: about 20 centimetres tall, covered in bright fur, with beautifully expressive eyes. While pleasant enough to look at, looks alone don't warrant millions of sales — to understand, you have to turn the Speeky on.
Now, if I place this Speeky on top of its charger unit (a miniature bed, of course), it’ll start to wake up — stretching its legs, rubbing its eyes, that sort of thing. And once it's fully awake, it will start talking to me.
It's not really the Speeky that's talking — conversational-level AI was still almost two decades off in 2014. It's not reading from a script, either, because I can ask it quite a wide range of questions, like whether I should go to the park or the beach today, and it'll give me appropriately personalised responses that take into account previous conversations I've had with it. You see, the Speeky isn't a toy so much as a puppet controlled by an operator who might be anywhere from next door to the other side of the planet.
The Speeky was invented by a team of MIT students in early 2014 who took advantage of the rapidly falling prices of components such as actuators, motors, cameras, and wireless chips — the ‘smartphone war’ dividend, if you will. Robotics historian Stan Malhotra relates the students’ path to success:
"The students drew up the first plans for the Speeky more as a thought experiment than a business venture, and when they sent them to a factory in Guangdong, they weren't expecting to make anything other than mementoes. But like many breakthroughs, it was a chance encounter between one of the team, Alice Stephenson, and a group of amateur performers from Boston University that gave them the idea to create online tools that would allow actors to easily 'puppet' the Speeky. One Kickstarter project later, and they had more than $10m in pre-orders."
It wasn't the first internet-connected toy to be sold, but it was the first that combined cheap but well-designed robotics components with a puppeting interface. Crucially, that interface was simple to use for anyone who'd ever played an action or role-playing video game — in other words, several hundred million people across the globe. Puppeting the Speeky's movements, however, while amusing for some younger children, was far from enough to satisfy most users, who wanted voice interaction.
This turned out to be surprisingly easy, even for puppeteers who weren't native English speakers; the Speeky platform automatically altered voices into a range of suitably saccharine tones, rendering accents moot. Indeed, some fast typers just used text-to-speech software during their puppeting. What really mattered was that a human was controlling the Speeky, someone who could provide genuine affection and empathy.
None of this came for free. Speekys were bundled with ten hours of free voice interaction, but after that parents had to purchase extra puppeteer time via either subscription or microtransaction. A market rapidly developed, with novice puppeteers offering their time for free in return for good reviews at one end, and highly skilled and highly paid entertainers at the other. Stan Malhotra explains the origin of puppeteers:
"If you asked the average person in North America or Europe where the best puppeteers were, they'd have said the patriotic thing and picked their own countries. But in practice, a huge number of highly skilled puppeteers came from all over the world — from inland China, Indonesia, India, South America — all these places that had fantastic actors who finally had access to rich, paying audiences."
Wherever they were based, puppeteers usually had access to vast quantities of 'Western' content online, from games to TV to movies, and they had little problem in learning how to (illegally) mimic characters from popular franchises such as Disney, EA, and Nintendo. Outsourcing had finally enveloped the performance industry.
In 2015, new Speeky models with different 'skins' (dragons, monsters, woolly mammoths, etc.) and capabilities were developed for teenagers and adults. However, the design and technology platform had been thoroughly reverse-engineered and cloned, and a glut of cheap competitors offering better profit splits with the puppeteers ensured that the MIT students were quickly brought back down to earth.
While Speekys and their clones were eventually superceded by wearable devices that displayed ever more fantastic and interactive creatures, and the role of puppeteers was replaced by effectively free AI performers, Speekys never quite went away. Instead, the attraction of retro physical products and vintage robotics ensured the Speeky's immortality as a classic toy, alongside the rocking horse and the doll's house.
Sitting here with a Speeky that's being puppeted by a colleague from the Museum, I can just about imagine how a child from the teens might have felt as they unwrapped this colourful bear and watched it wake up, talk, dance, and play for the very first time. I can also imagine the amazement of the puppeteer sitting halfway across the world as they watched their account being credited by the minute for as long as they could keep a smile on a child's face.