So guess what’s making a belated – and perhaps – unwelcome return? Furby. And judging from some of the initial press reviews, I don’t think I am alone in my complete and utter abject horror at the toy’s return. A quick look at some of the Furby’s no doubt ‘exciting new features’ and nothing much seems to have changed in the decade and a half since the original Furby (or ‘The Furby Formerly Known as Furby, as he/she now prefers to be called) terrorised a generation of parents. And looking back at the genesis of this toy, and I am seriously racking my brains as to just what all the fuss was about.
As I have alluded to previously, Furby was one of the playground crazes that spread out from the schoolyard and ultimately under the christmas trees of many a baffled parent. Both me and my sister were caught up in the Furby hysteria, which hit sometime before Christmas 1998/9 (I forget exactly which year), and I can remember the moment of joy on Christmas morning as we ripped through the stacks of presents to discover what we thought was the Holy Grail of presents. If I remember correctly, both of our Furbies pretty soon found themselves at the bottom of our respective toy box’s. Like most gimmicky toys, the Furby’s appeal wore thin pretty quickly and pretty much everyone had forgotten about them 6 months later.
The Furby was originally conceived by inventor Dave Hampton whom, along with co-inventor Caleb Chung, sold the rights to Tiger Electronics. Richard C. Levy was one of the principle people responsible for helping to bring the toy to the market, which was achieved in time for the U.S. holiday season in 1998 (an advert from this period can be found below). The toy is basically a talking, owl-like creature that recognises and responds to human interaction. By saying or doing specific phrases or actions, the Furby is supposed to “respond” to you in increasingly diverse ways. Initially, the Furby only speaks its own language, Furbish. Over time, the Furby is supposed to begin to speak English, as a result (it’s claimed) from your interaction with it. A somewhat similar experience to having a Tamogotchi, perhaps, but with less effort required on our part in fulfilling multiple needs.
From this description alone, my apparent disdain for it may appear to be unfair reaction. But, like most marketing for toys, not everything that the commercials tell us works out exactly the same in reality. One of the oft touted features of the toy is its supposed ability to ‘learn’ the phrases that you spout at it. My experience with my Furby was far from this. In the time I remember playing with it, it only “learned” a few english words and the range of its vocabulary was woefully narrow. What the toy actually did, I think, is come already programmed with a number of common English words and phrases that were initially locked.. The more time you spent playing with the toy, the quicker these English words started to become unlocked. Clever, but the pay-off for this reward (if you could even call it that) requires a lot of patience; something which, extensive research has probably shown, children generally do not have in large amounts.
The technology behind the Furby is impressive, I somewhat begrudgingly have to admit. Fitted with an internal microphone, motor and an array of different technological gizmos, it would take an expert to describe just what is going on inside a Furby. Suffice to say, there is enough power in there that could make it theoretically possible to power a 1980’s computer. One drawback was that I remember Furby being incredibly noisy. The whir of internal motors would, at times, deafen whatever the Furby might be saying.
Looking back at the original Furby today, and you get a feeling of palpable disappointment. Like many of the over-hyped things from yesteryear, there was always the realisation that, once you actually had the item in question, it would do none of the things that the adverts promised. My only concern is that my apparent bitterness over the toy may in fact be masking some kind of deep-seated childhood trauma or issue. But I’ll leave that to any future psychologist to determine and finish by simply pleading to parents reading, desperate to find no. 1 children’s toy for this Christmas: don’t give them a Furby. There are so many more potential presents out there. Like a ball and cup. Get ‘em that. So many hours of fun to be had with such a great toy.
(Image courtesy of ebay.com)