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iPad app makes kids the stars of interactive 'movie'

With the Winston Show, kids can converse directly with an animated character and thanks to speech recognition, instantly see a "movie" that incorporates the conversation.

With 'In the Movies,' kids can star in their own interactive movie as part of The Winston Show, an iPad app that incorporates live conversation thanks to speech recognition technology.
Toy Talk

Speech recognition is a tough computing problem, but Toy Talk thinks it has cracked the code -- at least for kids.

Today, the San Francisco startup launched the latest version of its iPad app, known as The Winston Show. The app is built around the idea of kids having a spoken conversation with a cartoon character known as Winston and immediately incorporating the discussion into various animated skits. It's as if Apple's Siri was the front end for a variety show.

The Winston Show launched in Apple's App Store in September, and it already featured a variety of interactive skits -- such as fireside chats and a quiz show -- that let kids talk with Winston and instantly see the humorous yellow blob respond to what they say. But now, with In the Movies, The Winston Show is ramping up the interactions and showcasing its speech recognition technology in more cinematic fashion.

It might be easy to dismiss a small startup working on an interactive app for kids. But Toy Talk's founders and earliest employees have some serious chops in the storytelling business. The company's CEO, Oren Jacob, for example, was formerly CTO of Pixar, and it also has employees with backgrounds at LucasFilm and SRI International.

The company is planning on making money both by eventually selling new Winston Show skits and by licensing its PullString speech recognition technology, which lets third-party designers create two-way characters that can respond to spoken interaction with pre-written scripted conversation.

'In the Movies' may well be one of the first iPad apps to feature black-and-white, part of a noir movie that kids can be part of. Toy Talk

Kids who play In the Movies will have the choice to solve a mystery as part of Winston Sly, Private Eye, a black-and-white noir film, as well as to be an alien invader in a "Star Trek"-like interactive space adventure called Squabble Amongst the Stars.

As with the existing six skits, In the Movies will pose a number of questions to kids, and almost immediately incorporate their responses into the story. Jacob said that Toy Talk's writers have already anticipated many of the most common responses, and written scripts based on them, and is also analyzing the unanticipated answers (among the more than 2 million responses it's already gotten) and will roll out new scripts in the coming weeks that incorporate them. On average, he said, Toy Talk will roll out an update about once a week, giving users a reason to keep coming back.

Already, The Winston Show offers kids -- and their parents, or other adults who play with the app -- about 12 hours of scripted interaction. And Jacob said that Toy Talk's studies have determined that the most common time for kids to play with the app is in half-hour blocks on the weekend. That means, he said, that The Winston Show is essentially filling the hole of a weekend TV cartoon in these kids' lives.