Furby, first released in 1998, is a physical soft toy with mechanical parts and a computerised brain. Its physicality, and the fact that it can respond to physical touch, differentiated Furby from other virtual pets available at the time such as Tamagotchi and Digimon, and made it the best selling toy at Christmas for three years running.
Produced by Tiger Electronics and designed by inventor David Hampton, who had previously worked at toy company Mattel as well as on classic videogame Q-Bert, the Furby was an attempt to make a Tamagotchi-style virtual pet that felt and reacted like a real, living animal. With sales exceeding 27 million in one 12-month period, and a 1999 sales forecast of $300 million from parent company Hasbro, the toys were hugely successful.
The original Furby model was discontinued in 2002, to be revived in 2005 and again in 2012, with later generations of Furby adding new features and functions. This case study will largely be concerned with a historical analysis of the original 1998-2002 Furbies, with a brief follow up describing changes made to the toy to bring the design up to date.
The illusion of life
The Furby’s advantage over other virtual pets available at the time was its ability to react to real-world stimulus, presenting a more convincingly ‘alive’ creature than a Tamagotchi’s LCD screen could.
Phobe.com performed a thorough autopsy on the original Furby model, and provide a run-down of the various elements that give the Furby its illusion of life. Through a combination of sensors and motorised moving parts, a Furby is able to:
- Respond to being stroked on the back.
- Respond to being touched on the stomach.
- Respond to being ‘fed’ when something is put in its mouth.
- Identify being turned upside-down.
- Respond to a change in light levels e.g. a light being turned on.
- Respond to sounds over a certain volume.
- Communicate with another Furby via IR (infra red) connectivity.
This range of functions creates a fairly convincing simulation of a pet, responding how a child would generally expect a living animal to. It ‘sleeps’ in the dark and ‘wakes up’ when the light comes on. It ‘likes’ being stroked and fed, and ‘dislikes’ being turned upside down or shaken.
The Furby also simulates intelligence through language. A Furby starts its ‘life’ knowing over 200 words of ‘Furbish‘, a made-up language that is translatable into English. As the Furby ‘grows up’, it begins to learn words of English, and will start talking to people in human language. At the time there were rumours about Furbies picking up language from the world around them or repeating words that people said to them; in fact, the Furby is simply pre-programmed to introduce English words into its vocabulary after a set amount of time has passed.
Even so, this fairly simple trick gave a genuine impression that the Furby was growing and learning, to the point of the toy being banned from the Pentagon in 1999 to avoid its perceived mimicking capability divulging classified information.
This Radiolab interview featuring Caleb Chung, the Furby product designer, reveals some of the complex design decisions involved in making Furby believable – from the positioning of its eyelids to the direction its gaze moves. It also features an interesting social experiment that speaks to the success of the Furby’s design. When asked to ‘stress’ three different entities – a Barbie doll, a Furby and a real hamster, children aged 7-8 were found to treat the Furby more like a hamster than like the static Barbie doll, implying that to some extent they considered the Furby believably alive.
The Furby is design to be interacted with the way you would interact with a real pet, by holding, touching and stroking it. All the Furby’s interface components are concealed inside its soft-toy body, and its behaviours are triggered by interacting with the body in various ways.
Going back to Phobe’s autopsy of a Furby, we can identify the components that make up this interface as follows:
- Pet switch–microswitch mounted on main PCB
- Inversion switch–mounted on main PCB
- Tummy switch–strip metal leaf switch mounted on top of speaker.
- Tongue switch–microswitch behind mouth
- Stroke switch–small leaf switch which monitors position of main gear system
- Light sensor–photocell in forehead
- IR sensor–in forehead
- IR send–IR LED in forehead
- Speaker–about 1.25 inch speaker mounted to belly. (Sound quality is not really any better without the fur)
- Motor speed sensor
- Microphone–small (0.33 inch) mounted in the side (to furby’s right). It’s unclear how clear the furby “hears” — it could be listening for specific sounds, or simply hears “loud” noises as single bit of input. I’ve never noticed that Toh-Loo-Kah could differentiate sound other than to respond generically to any loud noise, so I suspect the Furby’s auditory capabilities to be pretty basic.
- DC open armature motor–reversible
- reset button–on bottom
The images below (also from Phobe) show the internal components of the Furby beneath the fluffy outer layer:
All the internal sensors and mechanical parts are controlled by a PC board, which controls all the responses that give the Furby its sense of personality and intelligence.
Unlike purely virtual pets like a Tamagotchi, which simulate an intelligent creature on some kind of screen, the Furby is reliant on the appeal and interactivity of its physical form. As a physical soft toy, the more the Furby reacts like the user would expect a pet to do, the better engagement it is able to foster with the user. On a software level, Furby is basic even compared to an original Tamagotchi, which moves through distinct stages of life with notable changes in personality, while a Furby can only respond to stimulus and ‘learn’ language in a linear fashion.
In terms of inherent understanding of what a pet is, though, the Furby is a better simulation – anyone spending a short amount of time with a Furby understands that it’s supposed to be an animal and therefore has a basic idea of what to do with it, which cannot be said of the pocket-sized virtual pets which physically resemble little more than a hand-held games console.
As the ‘must have’ Christmas toy upon launch in 1998, Furby became a sensation in part because of how difficult it was to actually find one in a shop. As this CNN report from that year shows, the Furby suffered from a major scarcity problem, with rare units often being sold for many times their recommended retail price.
The rise of the Internet at the time may have had something to do with Furby’s insane popularity; websites were able to advertise the toy more widely than before, message boards became a hotbed for rumours and Furby-based brinkmanship, and auction sites like the fledgling eBay offered a last chance for desperate parents as well as a profit-making opportunity for enterprising Furby owners.
While the original line of Furbies was discontinued in 2002, they were brought back in a more complex, redesigned form in 2005 and again in 2012, with each newer iteration featuring improved interactions and more behaviours. Numerous spin-offs and limited editions were also released across this time.
Despite always relying on the physical toy for its central appeal, since 2013 Furby has had a purely digital component in the form of it’s companion app. The Furby BOOM companion app is designed to be used alongside the post-2013 Furby, and allows users to hatch and raise baby ‘furblings’ as well as interacting with the physical Furby in different ways.
The latest iteration, 2016’s Furby Connect, leans even more heavily on toy-to-app interaction, which Hasbro are calling ‘phygital play.’ Likely taking inspiration from popular toys-to-life lines like Skylanders and Disney Infinity, which blur the line between physical toys and digital play, the evolution of the Furby into a cross platform physical/digital hybrid shows an awareness on the designers’ part of how to update a classic toy for modern children’s play styles.