Wall Street Journal 12 March 1999 By Joseph Pereira
It's been falsely accused of stealing defense secrets, disrupting medical equipment and teaching bad words to children. But one thing Furby, the electronic talking sensation, cannot deny is frequently annoying adults with its incessant chatter.
While it quiets down when you leave it alone for a long time, a loud noise, an accidental bump, even a sharp turn in a car can set it off talking, singing, giggling, burping and demanding attention with admonishments like "Boring!"
Relief is just around the corner for Furby-weary adults. Conceding that it may have created too much of a chatterbox, Hasbro Inc. is about to unveil an engineering change that will make it easier to shut Furby up.
From now on, Furby will have to be turned upside down and back again before it launches into its seemingly unending patter. The company calls the new feature "Deep Sleep."
"We think this is a nice compromise between children and the adults," explains Jeff Jones, a product developer at Tiger Electronics, the Hasbro unit that makes the toy.
The first of the new model Furbies, which also come with spots, stripes and new colors, will make their debut at FAO Schwarz in New York Friday. They will be shipped to retailers throughout the country later this month.
Quieting the Toy
Although the Furby craze that began last Christmas shows little signs of a retail letup, Hasbro is apparently acting to prevent incipient opposition to Furby from snowballing into something that could hurt sales. The company acknowledges it is quieting the toy down because of complaints about annoying noise.
Tiger Electronics has sold almost as many Furbies since Christmas as it did during the holidays, shipping a total of 4.5 million of the toys so far. Consumers still wait in line in anticipation of new shipments. Furby will bring in $100 million, the megahit mark in toy-industry terms, for Hasbro this year, predicts Sean McGowan, a toy analyst for Gerard Klauer Mattison Inc. Tie-ins, including hats, backpacks, books and bedsheets, are expected to push Furby's total take over the half-billion-dollar mark, according to licensing agents.
But since Christmas, the toy has been banned from a number of hospitals and airlines, which say its electronics could interfere with instrumentation and communications.
In January, the National Security Agency banned the device, alleging it has a recording device inside that could compromise defense secrets. At the time, Tiger quickly denied that Furby contains a recording device -- but the misimpression persists.
Just last week, an e-mail message to personnel at the Norfolk (Va.) Naval Shipyard said Furby "is considered a recording device and as such is not allowed" on base "without the Commander approval. If you see one . . . you are to take the proper action -- seize it and its owner -- this is a security violation. The toy shall be held as evidence on a Chain of Custody form."
'Furby Is Not a Spy'
Tiger reiterated that there is no recording device in Furby and dispatched a disclaimer stating, "Furby is not a spy."
Tiger says Furby's utterances -- some in English, some in its own strange language -- are pre-programmed and vocalized via a voice microchip. But some adults have a hard time accepting this, notes Jeremy Leahy, producer of the morning show on Eagle 93.7, a Boston radio station. One recent morning, the show was deluged with callers "complaining that Furby was picking up some of their foul language and repeating it in front of the children," he reports.
"You never know," adds Sebastian Epstein, a Chicago attorney, who stopped discussing a case with a client during a recent flight to Memphis, Tenn., after he noticed the bug-eyed critter seated in the lap of a young boy in a nearby seat. "I would hate to be found guilty of violating an attorney-client privilege."
Following concerns expressed by hospitals about the effects of the low-level electromagnetic waves emitted by Furby's ramblings on medical equipment, Emergency Care Research Institute, which does research for the World Health Organization, conducted a study on Furby and rushed the results out in its monthly journal, Health Devices. It found no danger of interference.
"Furby has taken on urban-legend status," reports Mark Bruley, vice president of ECRI's accident and forensic investigations.
Complaints about Furby's sound and sensitivity, however, are grounded in reality. Its voice is activated by touch, other sounds, light or nearby movement, which is picked up with a motion sensor. The toy also has an infrared-communication system that allows it to respond to other Furbies. If one sneezes or hiccups, another will follow.
"My brother can hear it in the next room even when he has the TV blasting," says Chen-Yung Hsu, a junior at Cooper Union College in New York, who recently sought advice over the Internet on Furby-muffling. Among the suggestions offered, she says: "hold your hand over his mouth, or stuff its insides with foam."
What is most unusual about Furby is that it doesn't have an on/off switch. "We deliberately left it out to simulate a live pet," explains Roger Shiffman, president of Tiger Electronics. "In real life you just can't turn your cat or dog off and on." Jared Stensen, a Santa Clara, Calif., software engineer who has studied Furby's innards, calls Hasbro's latest action "the equivalent of debarking your dog."
Even though Furby's chatter may be annoying, at least one couple is thankful for its garrulity. Alan Hassenfeld, Hasbro's chairman and chief executive, says the company has heard about a Los Angeles couple who woke up in the middle of the night last month when their Furby launched into its spiel. Fire was spreading through the house. Mr. Hassenfeld says the glow from the flames apparently got the toy talking, and the couple escaped without injury.
Copyright © 1999 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Interesting they responded with a quieter unit. Seems like all the noise problems from keychain pets would have influenced their design earlier.
Also cute, is the direct response to the spy issue, the pets do NOT record.
I also liked the fire alarm story.
Possible problem? Could children transfer the "turn them upside down to make them shut up" idea to their little brothers and sisters or pets? Wait and see .....
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