Furby was the best-selling toy a few Christmas seasons back. Consumers bought two million of them. A rage like the previous Tickle Me Elmo, people were stalking the toy aisles at Wal-Mart and fighting for Furbies. Some entrepreneurs were selling the toy for as high as $3,000. ''The whole point of technology is to raise the bar on what is magical to kids,'' said one toy consultant. ''Furby managed to do just that and it was affordable - a perfect combination.''

Furby is a "smart toy." One of his inventors, Dave Hampton, placed chips in it that gives it four-levels of intelligence. The creature knows 800 words and phrases. The more an owner plays with a Furby, the smarter Furby gets.

When the closed-eyed, stuffed toy comes out of the box, it speaks Furbish (once its batteries are installed). Over time, Furby learns English or whatever other language it programmed to speak. (We programmed about ten languages besides English.) Furbies can sense light and sound and respond accordingly. They may crow like roosters when you shine a light on them. Furby can tell when its owner holds it upside down. Furby giggles when you tickle its stomach and purrs when you pet its back. It also, through the use of an infrared signal, can tell when another Furby is close. In some cases, according to the programming on the chip inside a Furby, when one Furby sneezes, it gives its cold to another Furby. It is that kind of cute that had Christmas shoppers paying up to $3,000 for the toy.

Puppeteers have always had professional relationships with toy makers. Major toy companies like Mattel have used us as consultants. A former puppeteer who became a toy creator at Mattel in the Blue-Sky division (Blue Sky is where the sky is the limit on invention), Caleb Chung, contributed to Furby's life. With Dave Hampton, they created this interactive stuffed toy called Furby, the shortened version of his original name, "Furball." When Wal-Mart told Tiger Electronics, "We'll stock as many Furbies as you can supply us," Furby was on his way to success.

The ways to program a toy or puppet are only limited by an inventor's ingenuity. One procedure uses toggle switches like an airplane radio-control box. On a project for Mattel Toys, toy programmers used a MIDI program and dialed in their manipulation.

Van Snowden ran theFurby program under the auspices of Sid and Marty Kroftt. As a Furby programmer, puppeteers worked at a station consisting of a computer, a monitor and a Furby. These were not ordinary, store shelf Furbies but ones linked to large batteries and an exposed circuit board that carried the chip. An exposed circuit board is totally vulnerable to simple static shocks. As the Furby workspace had standard office carpeting, programmers had to tether themselves to the batteries with a wire that slipped around their wrists. Leashed to Furby, keyboard at fingertips is how a Furby programmer worked.

The actual programming involved typing code and relaying to the chip and then the toy. Using a reference chart of Furby's servo motor, the Furby code broke into two parts: a Say Table with numbers representing specific words and a Movement Table where numbers corresponded to positions on Furby's internal servo motor. A programmer first wrote the phrase that Furby would say. For example, if in the "Say Table" we wrote the number 5,18,147, Furby would say Hey (#5), Tickle me (#18) and the giggle (#47. We also had the option of setting the dialogue speed and voice level by inputting numbers in the proper places on the Say Table.

Then we programmed to Movement Tables. Again numbers were used, this time to move the servo. Specific numbers pinpointed exact places on the servo where the mouth and eyes open and close, ears go up and down and Furby leans forward. Sending number sentences through the computer, we then watched our Furbies move.

As a programmer improved, writing code became second nature. There were many different nuances to come up with animation. For puppeteers to have desk jobs was amusing. Since most are clowns at heart, fun was found. Using digital codes to manipulate puppets equally applies to a puppeteer's work in computer animation. Puppeteers and animators are the best people to write performance codes. Careful consideration of when to blink, when to close the mouth and forming implosive consonants make a big difference in character creation.

When I received my own Furby as a gift from Tiger Electronics, the toy left a charming first impression. Taking Furby to work, he giggled and gasped "whoa" when I swung the bag or accidentally banged it on the car door. (Oops.)

To simplify costs so Furby sells for $30, the chip inside has a 16% differential. That means that carefully synchronized dialogue at a workstation could, and does, slip in the final toy. My Furby came right out of the box with good lip-sync. That may vary depending on which factory made your Furby.



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Puppeteers in Furbyland
by G.P. Williams