Say goodbye to Math-is-Hard Barbie - after enduring years of criticism that she embodies the stereotype of woman-as-dumb-blonde, Barbie is turning into quite a geek.
Learning from the success of a line of Barbie tech toys last year, Mattel made a series of announcements this week that will continue to bring Barbie and her plastic playmates into the digital age.
"Before we launched the Barbie software we heard a lot of girls aren't into computers, but there weren't a lot of things for girls," says Sara Rosales, spokeswoman for Mattel. "We've learned that girls like technology - but they have to be interested, to do things that call their attention beyond just education."
Mattel first tested the technology waters with its Barbie Fashion Designer software during the 1996 holiday season. When it turned out to be a flyaway success, the company quickly launched more software project tie-ins.
Today Barbie fans can not only pick up a shelf-load of pink-boxed software like "Barbie Magic Hair Styler" and "Barbie Screen Styler," but they can also buy the recently released "Talk With Me Barbie," which lets Barbie be programmed to say a child's name, favorite color, and other personal details via an infrared connection to a computer.
Mattel's decision to push the technology tie-ins even further was evident this week at the 95th American International Toy Fair in New York, where the company has showcased its latest and greatest.
First off, Barbie is now sporting her very own digital camera: Kids will be able to use a Barbie-branded, child-sized camera that takes up to six pictures. Budding photographers can then upload their pictures to a PC, paste them into email-able postcards, or add them into an image with Barbie. They can also use the pictures to create flip-book style movies.
In the longer term, Mattel has plans to create more PC-based toys, the company said, announcing on Monday a letter of intent to develop them with Intel. Similar to the Talk With Me Barbie, or a new Winnie the Pooh doll that can download 20 minutes of personalized programmed speech via microwave, the Intel/Mattel deal plans to examine new ways to create interactive dolls.
"To keep a brand fresh it's got to reflect the attitude and trends of the culture. We're moving towards technology, and Barbie has to reflect that," says Sean Fitzgerald, a Mattel spokesperson. "It has been our experience that kids' imagination and creativity is actually enhanced by high-tech advances."
Although Mattel wouldn't speculate on how such advances will actually shape future toys, the company will be applying new technology across several brands - including Barbie, Hot Wheels and Cabbage Patch Dolls - and will focus on "enhancing" current stand-alone toys by testing new ways to download information to them from a PC. The first Intel/Mattel-developed toys will appear in two or three years.
"The fact that a toy can tap into a computer means they have more capabilities for voice recognition, to connect to the Net to get more information, to have more games downloaded into the toy," says Michael Bruck, director of consumer software for Intel's developer relations group. With the deal, Intel hopes that childrens' demand for killer-app toys will convince more parents to purchase computers. "I think technology is appealing to kids - half the people who buy computers in the home are families with kids, and the reason they buy them is for children."
Finally, for the sci-fi set, Mattel announced this week the creation an US$80 special, limited-edition X-Files Barbie and Ken, to be released next fall alongside the X-Files Movie. Although the dolls won't look like Fox and Scully, they'll be dressed like the TV characters in full FBI regalia (think trench coats and cell phones) and will be offered as an "adult collector set." Mattel couldn't comment on alien accessories or chip implants.
But, as Rosales says, laughing, "Barbie keeps up with the times."