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What's Inside A Furby?

A lot of smart electronic, that's what. We peel back the fur and take a peek inside. And if you want to start hacking, there's lots of web sites to look at.

by Julian Edgar

Click for larger image
Furby, stripped of his furry coat and internal plastic carapace. Located between the eyes are the light sensor (centre) and a pair of infrared transmitter and receiver LEDs. Furbys can automatically communicate with one another via this infrared link.

The subject of a child’s toy might seem to be a strange choice for an electronics magazine like SILICON CHIP. But as you’ll soon see, it isn’t. Packed inside a Furby’s 130mm-high furry body is an amazing complexity of mechanical and electronic components – and software.

Unconvinced? How’s this then – the software boasts the ability to actually change the toy’s output behaviour in response to the preferences of the child who owns it. Yes, the Furby can adaptively learn! Throw in a spoken vocabulary of 160 words (capable of being incorporated into no less than 1000 different phrases), the ability of Furbys to automatically communicate with one another via an inbuilt infrared port and then consider the retail cost – around $69 in Australia and just US$30 in the United States!

It’s state-of-the-art in a very unassuming package indeed.

The toy

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This photo shows just how jam-packed Furby is inside. A semicircular PC board is located just above the battery box, with the mechanical module mounted on top of that. The sound-sensing microphone is hanging on its lead closest to the camera.

The Furby is a fur-covered pseudo-animal with fixed feet and a movable mouth, ears, and eyes. In addition, the Furby can rock forward on its base platform. The movable parts of the toy are mechanically driven by an internal electric motor (more on this in a moment) which operates the eyelids, opens and closes the mouth, and waggles the ears up and down. Also hidden under the fur are press-switches on the front and back and a switch inside the mouth that is triggered whenever the mouth is opened manually.

A big factor in the toy’s success is its language skills, with an internal speaker able to clearly communicate "spoken" words and phrases. There are also additional inputs and outputs but more about these later.

A short description of the toy doesn’t do it justice; it is the way in which it works which is so interesting. For example, as I write, my Furby (yes, I bought one as part of the research for this story!) is "asleep". How do I know? – well, it made snoring noises, then rocked forward and closed its eyes.

Loud noises or changes in light or other stimuli will not wake it. To rouse the beast, it must be picked up and tilted to trigger an internal tilt switch. By the way, early Furbys were apparently much harder to put to sleep, requiring a certain sequence of events including lots of pats on the back. However, Furby manufacturer Tiger Electronics Ltd changed the design, fearing a backlash from exasperated parents. Furby doesn’t have an on/off switch, you see.

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