Elemental Path has something hot on its hands with CogniToys, the smart connected toy that uses the artificial intelligence of IBM’s Watson supercomputer to hold conversations with children.
The educational toy startup blew through its Kickstarter crowdfunding goal of $50,000, raising more than $165,703 from 1,400 backers in its first seven days of a 30-day campaign. CogniToys is a toy that listens to a child and taps the Watson supercomputer, which became famous for playing Jeopardy against human players. Watson handles speech recognition and A.I. responses to questions that the children ask.
“We hit our stretch goals and now we need new stretch goals,” said JP Benini, cofounder of New York-based Elemental Path, in an interview with VentureBeat.
Elemental Path is the brainchild of founders Don Coolidge and JP Benini, who last year proposed CogniToys as an application for IBM’s Watson supercomputer. The idea was to create a personalized toy that could listen to a child and adapt and grow with the kid.
“I just wanted to play with Watson,” Benini said. “Watson was a toy to me.”
Their pitch beat out hundreds of rivals and won the grand prize at the IBM Watson Mobile Developer’s Challenge. The prize was the access to use the Watson supercomputer via a mobile app. The app streams a child’s questions over the cloud to fetch responses from Watson. The smarts are all in the cloud, while the toy is very simple as a Wi-Fi-connected conduit.
“We use Watson as the back-end knowledge base, and we gave the creature a grumbly-Cookie-Monstery-Muppety voice,” Coolidge said in an interview with VentureBeat. “Kids seem to enjoy it. All of the magic is in the technology.”
Coolidge said the team is thinking about creating additional toys in the CogniToys line. The company has a half-dozen employees plus contractors. Bernie Stolar, former head of Sega of America and Sony Computer Entertainment America, liked the idea so much that he just joined as chief operating officer of Elemental Path.
“These guys are really nailing it,” Stolar said.
The child presses the belly of the dinosaur toy, which puts the toy into listening mode. The child can ask thousands of questions and receive age-appropriate answers. The child can give commands to the toy and hear or create stories. The Internet-connected toy can listen to and tell knock-knock jokes and take on a unique personality that evolves over time based on the child’s interaction with the toy. The toy gets to know the child’s name and learns things like favorite colors, favorite toys, and interests.
“Older kids ask it more practical questions about homework,” Coolidge said. “The younger kids go for younger interactive games, where it’s more about the play and less about the education. But the education is still there.”
On the educational side, the toy helps kids learn rhyming, spelling, vocabulary, mathematics, and more. By streaming the child’s voice to Watson, the supercomputer can start parsing the question immediately while the rest of the query comes in.
“We don’t have to wait for the utterance to be completed before we start processing it,” Coolidge said.
Benini said,”The magic for us is we can work in the dinosaur’s personality with fun answers.”
The company aims to deliver the toy in time for the holidays. It will use its Kickstarter money to get production going.