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Christmas Gift Guide
Internet

When the toys talk back via IM

Soon you won't have to ask your AOL instant messaging partner "What's Up Doc?" through text. You can let Bugs Bunny say it for you--Brooklyn accent and all.

Soon you won't have to ask your AOL instant messaging partner "What's Up Doc?" via text. You can let Bugs Bunny say it for you--Brooklyn accent and all.

This fall, Los Angeles-based United Internet Technologies (UIT), is planning to introduce a series of plush toys that will translate instant messages into spoken words.

The company, which Monday unveiled a deal to use AT&T's Natural Voices speech technology in its products, already has signed up some heavy hitters as partners, including America Online, which plans to offer the toys via its Web site.

Targeted at preteens--who are among the biggest users of instant messaging--the wireless animals are designed to add a personal touch to instant messaging sessions, allowing people to say it, not type it.

"It really feels alive," promised Brian Shuster, UIT CEO and co-inventor of the company's system for networked devices. UIT has received a patent on controlling animatronic devices via the Internet.

The first round of toys, due in September, will include Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck that speak a series of preset phrases. Messengers can pick from a menu of phrases, much the same way they insert smiley faces and other emoticons into their messages. The toys will work exclusively with AOL's AIM environment and will cost between $19 and $25.

The company eventually plans to offer toys that translate instant messaging text into speech that will emanate from the toys. The toys will contain filters that will attempt to block material that's not appropriate for children. UIT also plans to expand its offerings to characters including the Terminator.

Whether the toys will take off--and not just annoy or scare children by evoking Chucky of the "Child's Play" horror movies--remains to be seen.

Robotic devices have had mixed reviews among children. Some, like the Furby, were wildly popular for a brief period of time, prompting parents to shell out big bucks for critters that now sell for less than $3 on eBay. Others, like Sony's Aibo robotic dog, have steadily gained customers, prompting the company to release several new models.