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Toys and Tabletop Games

Alexa in Toyland: How Amazon's assistant is changing playtime

You'll see Amazon's Alexa infiltrate the New York Toy Fair as toymakers figure out how to use the digital assistant to add new sound experiences to games.

CNET / Bryan VanGelder

Alexa, shall we play a game?

Amazon's smart assistant is making her way into playtime, with Mattel and other toymakers adding Alexa voice commands to products to enhance game play. Several such toys are due this fall, and this weekend some will be on display at the ginormous New York Toy Fair.

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Mattel's Escape Room in a Box incorporates Alexa into the puzzle-solving board game.

Sarah Tew/CNET

In many of these products, you can't actually play against Alexa. Instead she's a guide, keeping score, reading rules and setting the mood with sound effects and music.

In an age when parents are accustomed to syncing toys with smartphone apps, it's not much of a leap for companies to want to leverage smart speakers. Industry watchers expect Amazon's Echo speakers to be in more than 66.3 million US households by 2022.

Why make your own voice recognition system and battle privacy worries when you can use one already trusted in millions of homes?

"We know that more than one in five parents of connected children own a voice-controlled internet-connected smart speaker," said Sven Gerjets, Mattel's chief technology officer. "Nearly all parents who have a smart speaker feel comfortable with their child using it."

Mattel's first dip into Alexa isn't geared toward young kids, though. It's a puzzle-solving game for adults called Escape Room in a Box: The Werewolf Experiment. It costs $30 or £33 on Amazon (that's about AU$60). Having an Echo isn't required, but it does add ambiance by playing a spooky soundtrack while also acting as a timer and a source for hints.

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Alexa as rule keeper

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Alexa is required to play Sensible Object's "When in Rome," a travel trivia game out later this year.

Sensible Object

London-based Sensible Object is taking a similar approach with its upcoming voice-augmented board game Voice Originals: When in Rome. The travel trivia game, to be priced at $30, uses voice actors and sound effects as the players explore the world. Alexa, and eventually Google Assistant and Apple's Siri, will help keep track of scores and will give guidance on rules. (Basically all the boring things.)

"No one wants to be the guy or girl that reads the rules and tells people they are doing something wrong," said Alex Fleetwood, chief executive and founder of Sensible Object.

But playing with Alexa means having to invoke her name throughout the game with the correct trigger phrase. "Alexa, which team is winning?" "Alexa, ask Escape Room for a hint." "Alexa, this isn't my suitcase." 

One startup is getting around that.

Novel Effect, based in Seattle, created a way for music and sound effects to play when parents are reading a classic book to their kid. No one wants to interrupt the middle of a bedtime story with Alexa commands, though. In "Where the Wild Things Are," when Max cries out to let the wild rumpus start, he's not asking Alexa for permission.

So Novel Effect is collaborating directly with Amazon to make the actual words from the books be the trigger words for sound effects (as long as you first activated the Novel Effect skill program).

Right now Novel Effect exists as an iOS app. But CEO Matt Hammersley says that when his Alexa program launches, it'll be smoother and quicker than opening up the app.

Voice over visuals

Voice assistants can replace the need to stare at a smartphone screen. The Play Impossible Gameball is a Bluetooth-connected foam outdoor ball stuffed with sensors. A smartphone app displays challenges for tossing the Gameball around, and and it keeps track of your progress and speed. Later this year, Play Impossible wants to just let Alexa keep track of your prowess.

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Scout, the latest voice-recognition talking toy from Elemental Path, is scheduled to hit stores later this year.

Elemental Path

Voice technology is tricky for toy companies to tackle. Parents can worry about the privacy of a toy that's always listening. And creating voice-recognition systems that understand little kid babble isn't cheap -- especially when the responses need to be safe, fresh and fun.

Take it from Elemental Path co-founder John Paul Benini. His company has been investing in this technology for three and a half years, creating several educational talking toys for kids ages 5 and up. According to Benini, Elemental Path has raised roughly $4.5 million so far, and later this year it plans to launch Scout, a $150 robot buddy programmed with a childlike curiosity that prompts it to strike up conversations with its owner.

Can Alexa show Barbie how to get down?

Mattel canceled an earlier attempt at doing voice on its own. Hello Barbie Hologram, revealed at last year's Toy Fair, was designed to be a type of personal assistant for young kids. A voice-controlled animated Barbie projection lived inside a glowing, pink speaker box. Powered by Mattel's own blend of secure software, it answered to "Hello, Barbie" and would report on the weather, set reminders, play music, give yoga lessons -- and also throw dance parties on request. 

The problem? Too expensive. It was to be listed for $235, and Mattel's consumer testing found that it was too pricey for the play value, according to a company spokeswoman. It never made it to store shelves.

Leveraging Amazon's system is, of course, much more cost effective for toy companies big and small.

So perhaps Barbie may have to use Alexa to throw her next dance party.

'Alexa, be more human': Inside Amazon's effort to make its voice assistant smarter, chattier and more like you.

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