From the NY Times
Date: Saturday, December 07 @ 17:41:54 PST
Topic: News


http://www.nytimes.com/2002/12/05/technology/circuits/05prof.html
Building a Better Cat
December 5, 2002
By SAUL HANSELL

PAWTUCKET, R.I.

WHAT could be cooler than opening a big box under the
Christmas tree and finding a two-foot-long green robotic
dinosaur?



December 5, 2002
By SAUL HANSELL

PAWTUCKET, R.I.


WHAT could be cooler than opening a big box under the
Christmas tree and finding a two-foot-long green robotic
dinosaur?


That's what Leif Askeland thought two years ago as he and a
team of fellow engineers at Hasbro's Tiger Electronics
division were rushing to finish a working model of a
microchip-controlled raptor that could lumber across the
floor, swing its tail and open its jaws to show off a
fearsome set of teeth.


Mr. Askeland displayed his creation in January 2001 at Toy
Fair, the industry's annual gathering in New York. The
reaction of the assembled buyers from the world's toy
stores was tepid, and Hasbro canceled the dinosaur before
it ever hit the shelves. Starting with Tiger's Furby,
robotic creatures had been one of the biggest fads of the
late 1990's. But sales had crashed, and many in the
industry were pronouncing the entire species extinct.


It was a blow to Mr. Askeland, but he and his team knew
that advances in technology were enabling toys to do far
more for less money. So in the spring of last year they sat
around a big wooden table here on the factory floor that
once stamped out Hasbro's Mr. Potato Head and G.I. Joe, and
tried to figure out what sort of robotic toy would appeal
to retailers, parents and children.


Their answer: a cat. But unlike the other robotic pets, it
would not be the sort of silvery contraption that looks as
though it just pounced off a flying saucer. No, he would
build a cuddly lap cat that would purr when you petted it
and press its face into your hand if you rubbed its cheeks.
It would be covered in fur, not hard plastic.


After a year of development and deep skepticism within
Hasbro and in the toy industry, the result of Mr.
Askeland's work hit the market in July. At $35 each,
FurReal Friends, as Hasbro named it, has become one of the
season's hottest toys and is almost sold out at stores
across the country. Hasbro declines to specify how many
FurReal Friends it has sold but says the figure is in the
millions.


That a cat would succeed where a dinosaur failed reflects
in one sense the fickleness of the toy market.


"There is a lot of market research before a toy launch, but
success or failure is hard to predict,'' said Jill Krutick,
a toy industry analyst at Salomon Smith Barney. "You see
something that spikes up, like animal gadgetry, and then
consumers turn up their noses at it.''


But the development of the FurReal cat may also suggest
that the electronic toy industry is beginning to grow up,
subordinating the gadgetry to classic, open-ended modes of
play.


"You don't want the technology in a toy to be visible,''
said Judy Ellis, the chairwoman of the toy design
department at the Fashion Institute of Technology. "The
first robot pets were very cool-looking, but a child
doesn't relate to a shiny surface. A child can relate to a
furry cat.''


Indeed, Mr. Askeland passed up some of the technological
features used in other robotic pets like infrared sensors
so more money could go into the feel of the cat's fur and
the look of its eyes.


"You can make tricks that you would do one time,'' Mr.
Askeland said. "We preferred to focus on the emotional
aspects of play. Nurturing and friendship are things that
stay with you for a lifetime.''


The success of the FurReal cat is all the more unusual
because it is not usually the place of engineers like Mr.
Askeland to come up with new toys. In the toy industry
pecking order, creating toys is the role of independent
inventors and staff designers. Engineers are supposed to
realize the visions of the designers so that the motors do
not rattle and the parts do not fall off.


"Toy engineering should be more highly regarded than it
is,'' Mr. Askeland said. "Not only are there constant
deadlines, there are challenges to meet quality criteria,
and you have to be able to do a lot with little.''


Growing up in Oslo, Mr. Askeland (pronounced ASK-uh-land)
had no idea he would design toys, let alone furry robot
friends. He studied engineering and wound up working for a
graphic-products company that sent him to its headquarters
in Providence, R.I. He married a woman from Warwick, R.I.,
and parlayed his experience with plastics into a job with
Hasbro. (He and his wife, Karen, have two children - a son,
12, and a daughter, 6 - whom he uses as his personal
research department.)


At Hasbro, his first assignment was shaping the parts for a
baby's busy box. He soon graduated to toddler toys and by
1994 was the chief engineer for Hasbro's Playskool
division. One task there was to make sure that additions to
Playskool's line of rocking Weebles figures would still
wobble but not fall down.


Mr. Askeland said he was especially proud of the design of
a big Playskool dollhouse, the first of its size to be made
out of plastic and not wood.


"The realism we had was groundbreaking at the time,'' he
said. "We had lights and sounds and a great assortment of
accessories, down to plastic pillows and curtains. It
became a product with a lot of play value.''


The dollhouse and other toys increasingly tended to have
electronic components - and Mr. Askeland earned a second
degree, this time in electrical engineering, at Johnson &
Wales University.


His new skills came into play in 1998 when Hasbro bought
Tiger Toys, a company in Vernon Hills, Ill., known for its
electronics. Tiger was about to introduce an elaborate
little creature with a 200-word vocabulary called Furby,
and Mr. Askeland was brought in to work out some
last-minute design kinks. Hasbro went on to sell some 40
million Furbies, and Mr. Askeland soon found himself
running Tiger's engineering operation.


He assembled a team with experts on mechanics, visual
design and game play, which is essentially the art of
sequencing what an electronic toy does so that children
have fun. All of them were taxed by the cat.


"Cats are very difficult,'' he said. "There have been a lot
of robot dogs, but not very many good cats.''


They set out in particular to make the cat as lifelike as
possible. Rather than the gears and axles used in many
mechanical toys, they created a neck bone and a spine of
interlocking plastic vertebrae manipulated by ribbons to
create a looser, more lifelike range of motion.


At the same time, the designers had to make sacrifices to
keep down the toy's selling price. Along with infrared
sensors, the cat also lacks speech recognition capability,
for example, which Furby had. And its paws do not move.
FurReal is forever a lap cat.


"There is a tendency to put too much in toys,'' Mr.
Askeland said. "Once you have it be mobile, what are you
going to do with it? Where is it going to walk?''


He says that the cat incorporates technological innovations
that are far from digital. A new process for shaving the
fur allows a smooth transition from long hair on the cat's
back to shorter hair on its face. And Hasbro has actually
applied for a patent on the process that was used to make
the eyes with a pink outer rim and speckled color in the
iris.


To get the shape of the head right, Mr. Askeland created a
computer scan of a cat skull.


"People think you just put it all together and stuff it,''
he said. "It's a lot more than that.''


The most difficult task, however, was designing the cat's
software to make the game play realistic and fun. It took
many tests in Mr. Askeland's workshop and down the hall in
Hasbro's FunLab, where children are brought to try out toys
as designers zoom about with cameras taping their finger
movements.


In Mr. Askeland's office in a portioned-off corner of the
former toy factory here, an elaborate chart summarizes the
cat's game play.


When the cat is first turned on, it "wakes up,'' stretching
its neck and arching its back. It meows and then begins to
monitor six scattered sensors that can tell if it is being
touched on the head, neck, back or tail. A sensor between
the ears notices changes in light.


It starts in playful mode, where it is active and
frequently meows. Pulling its tail nudges it into irritated
mode, characterized by hissing and an arched back. (Good
thing the budget couldn't accommodate claws.) Petting the
cat's head or chin three times brings on cuddly mode and a
lot of small movements and purring.


Long before development was complete, Mr. Askeland had to
move into office politics mode and convince Hasbro's
executives that they should overcome their fear of
mechanical pets and invest many millions of dollars in his
quixotic cat project.


This involved many demonstrations of half-built cats with
gears visible and wires hanging out.


"At first, I saw a nonworking plush item and people were
trying to describe to me what it would do,'' said Duncan
Billing, who became the general manager for Hasbro's Big
Kids division, which includes Tiger Electronics, in the
fall of 2001. One of his first tasks was to pick the toys
to build for Christmas 2002. He agreed that Mr. Askeland
could build a working model of the cat.


"I saw it and said, 'Wow, no one has ever made a cat this
realistic,' '' Mr. Billing said. The company took the model
to Toy Fair. The market's reaction was skeptical yet just
positive enough that Hasbro ordered a batch to test-market
in New York. That went well enough that last spring Hasbro
started full manufacturing of three versions in white, gray
and marmalade.


Hasbro said that the cat, whose target audience is 6-
to-12-year-old girls, has found a second one: people in
nursing homes who want the companionship of a cat without
the litter box. The cat is manufactured in China, and the
company said there was not enough lead time to get more
onto the market by the end of the year.


Hasbro's marketing department is now eager for Mr.
Askeland's group to design a pet shop full of creatures
that can turn FurReal into a big brand.


Mr. Askeland said he would be happy to do that, but he
takes satisfaction in the way that in this case, marketing
took a back seat to the engineers.


"Usually, there is more strategy to what we do,'' he said.
"The cat was just a bunch of engineers getting together who
wanted to do something neat.''






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