How can you mail a simple hello or send your love to kids too young to pick up a phone? Here's a thought – send them messages through their toys instead. Toymail, the brainchild of Clocky's inventor Gauri Nanda, lets anyone send messages to kids through cute smart toys that act as voice messengers.
The Wi-Fi-enabled "Mailmen" can receive audio messages sent via an app and play them out loud to the child. Kids get to reply immediately through the toy and can even carry on a two way conversation. The toy aims to help family and friends connect to young children easily, allowing them to communicate and play with each other anytime, regardless of where the sender might be.
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"There is currently no way for young children who cannot use phones to receive messages," Nanda tells Gizmag. "We've given the product to 3-6 year olds and they are able to send messages out for the first time on their own."
Nanda, along with her friend Audry Hill, a mother of three, came up with the Toymail concept when they were thinking of ways to say something to Hill's children when they couldn't physically be around them. Starting with the idea of using toys as messengers, they designed them to resemble street mailboxes and spent a year-and-a-half developing the underlying technology.
Built-in Wi-Fi connects the toy to the home network, allowing the sender to communicate with the toy through a Toymail app on their phone. To let friends and family communicate with the child's toy, the sender simply sends them invites through the app. They can record voice messages through the app wherever they are and hit send. Once a toy receives a message it snorts, whinnies, growls or wheezes to let the child know that they've received a Toymail.
Kids can play back the message and reply to the sender directly through simple controls on the Mailmen. Their replies are sent to the app which stores their messages in the sender's Toymail app account. There's also a daily toymailer service that sends songs, facts or quotes to Mailmen each morning so that the toys say something fresh everyday to the child.
"They never say the same things twice," explains Nanda. "We can put our technology into any character we like, and make any traditional looking toy say something new every day.”
The Mailmen check for Toymail every ten minutes and can speak them out in the sender's own voice or funny voices. To avoid confusing the child, they only play one message at a time and prompt them at the end to reply. While the app is free, every Toymail sent or received costs one virtual stamp; a book of 50 stamps is priced at US$0.99. The Mailmen are set up to deliver messages only between 6 am and 9 pm and it's possible to update the toy's software wirelessly.
Getting Toymail to work without adding a screen, while still keeping the toy simple enough for little children to use was one of the major design challenges the duo had to solve.
"The common trend with technology is to create something that puts you in front of a screen," Nanda tells us. "We want to take kids away from screens. The emphasis is on staying connected away from a screen."
Nanda says Toymail is part of a growing movement in the "Internet of things" and she aims to create an entirely new genre of "social toys" that evolve through user-generated content that ultimately help connect kids more.
"Our toys characters' become a composite of all the people in a child's life," Nanda tells us. "And a child can reply, to keep the conversation going. All the people that matter in a child's life can stay connected to them through play."
Successfully funded through Kickstarter, the Mailmen Toys are available through the Toymail website for US$59 each.
Toymail is demonstrated in the following video.