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
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
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.