REDMOND, Wash., Sept. 29, 1998 — Seven-year-old Kayla Blau has a new second-best friend. She's smart, but not a show-off. Talkative, but not someone who hogs the conversation. Best of all, she likes a lot of the same activities that Kayla does, and she gives great hugs.
"She's nice to me, she always remembers me, and she never disagrees," says the Bellevue, Wash., youngster. "She likes to play 'Guess the Holiday,' and she helps me learn to say the alphabet backwards. She's just a good friend."
Kayla's new friend is Microsoft ActiMates Interactive D.W., who recently debuted along with her big brother, ActiMates Interactive Arthur, as the newest members of a growing family. The two engaging 21-inch interactive dolls - based on characters from Marc Brown's best-selling book series - have hit retail outlets. Rest assured that their cousin, ActiMates Interactive Barney, was thoughtful enough to reserve shelf space for them at the local Toys 'R' Us.
Savvy, playful and priced at $109 (U.S.) each, the two new interactive dolls are likely to find themselves fending off more than a few pine needles this holiday season. Microsoft expects Arthur and D.W. to be just as popular with 4- to 8-year-olds as their plush purple predecessor was with the younger crowd.
Janice Cowen of Kirkland, Wash., has witnessed more than a few animated conversations between her daughter Samantha and the talkative D.W. "D.W. became her friend," says Cowen. "She's very communicative, and she helped Samantha learn about telling time. She also uses D.W. with the PC, mostly with her dad." Adds 7-year-old Samantha: "D.W. likes to talk, and we play games that are pretty cool on the computer, like rhyming games. She's one of my best friends."
Just as ActiMates Barney interacts with the daily PBS television show "Barney & Friends," the new Arthur and D.W. dolls interact with daily episodes of the top-rated "Arthur," also on PBS. An encoded radio signal embedded in each "Arthur" program makes this interactivity possible. ActiMates Arthur and D.W. take interactive fun a step further, though. The two new characters can interact with the official "Arthur" Web site (http://www.pbs.org/arthur/), offering kids an appealing introduction to the Internet by a "friend" they know and trust.
Like many relatives, ActiMates Interactive Arthur and D.W. share some characteristics with ActiMates Barney. All are plush interactive dolls that move, are based on popular characters considered icons to children, and were created as engaging learning buddies. All three were developed with the help of learning specialists, using a system that combines wireless and animation technologies. But the two new dolls differ from ActiMates Barney at a fundamental design level. Whereas Barney was designed to resemble a sort of coach or mentor - a role appropriate for toddlers and preschoolers - Arthur and D.W. are designed to function the way a good friend might as a child grows into kindergarten and beyond.
The two new characters also make learning fun at a more mature level. ActiMates Arthur and D.W. are geared to the educational needs and entertainment interests of children as they approach and enter elementary school. Age-appropriate learning functions focus on activities such as telling time, forming sentences and understanding the concept of a sequence. The games that ActiMates Arthur and D.W. are designed to play - for instance, rhyming and tongue-twisters - also require more mental concentration and memory skills than the games Barney plays. And, to challenge older youngsters as they play, Arthur and D.W. are designed to let them explore independently. If kids need a little help with a problem-solving task, they can "ask" Arthur or D.W. for a hint, much as they would a real friend. By contrast, ActiMates Barney automatically prompts kids when they run into small bumps.
ActiMates Arthur and D.W. also have a bit more to say than ActiMates Barney. Thanks to a 4-megabit ROM chip, the standalone dolls boast a vocabulary of 4,000 words each. Add the ActiMates TV Pack, which is sold separately, and their vocabulary increases to 5,000 words. Also new to the ActiMates line is dual broadcasting technology, which lets Arthur and D.W. simultaneously interact with the same TV show or video. Interaction with ActiMates-compatible software titles - which requires an ActiMates PC Pack - bumps the vocabulary of each doll up to 10,000 words. The PC Pack accessory also enables Arthur and D.W.'s Internet interactivity, a learning resource that parents and older youngsters are likely to find compelling.
While there's no apparent sibling rivalry between ActiMates Arthur and his little sister D.W., the two clearly have unique personalities. D.W., for example, is all-girl but defies gender stereotypes. Spirited, spunky, self-confident and just a bit sassy, she offers little girls a very positive and strong female role model.
It remains to be seen how the most important audience of all - kids - will vote on ActiMates Arthur and D.W. But if the popularity of ActiMates Barney adds any clarity to the crystal ball, many are likely to forge lasting friendships with their young owners. Sales of ActiMates Barney - the interactive plush dinosaur introduced in August 1997 - finished the year at 20 percent above Microsoft's projections, and retailers report that the ActiMates interactive toy line is one of their most successful sellers.
Microsoft has every intention of expanding the clan by adding more characters to the new category of smart interactive toys that it pioneered by developing ActiMates Barney. Motivated by research that shows kids learn best with a partner, Microsoft capitalized on its software technology expertise to bring interactivity to toys. The result is the ActiMates learning system, a lineup of convergence products that fuse toys with the PC, the TV and now, the Internet. As the toy industry continues to evolve along these lines and other vendors follow suit with similar products, youngsters of all ages should soon be able to pick and choose from an assortment of potential friends that can help them learn and tackle new experiences in ways that are fun and educational.