Google’s stuffed animals would control your appliances (and talk to your kids)

A patent filed by Google speculates that mechanical toys, whose embedded microphones would be constantly listening for spoken cues, could be installed in children's bedrooms.

The Google X patent describes toys that would be able to relay voice commands to Internet of Things devices by locking eyes with the user. Here, a diagram from the patent shows motors, microphones, cameras, and speakers embedded in the toys.

Google’s experimental “skunkworks” lab, Google X, has come up with a lot of weird, potentially useful ideas, including Internet-enabled weather balloons and special contact lenses to monitor the composition of users’ tears. But a patent filed by Google X and published this week might be the lab’s oddest project yet: a line of Internet-connected stuffed animals that can control appliances throughout your house and maintain eye contact with kids.

Similar to Amazon’s Echo home speaker/information hub, the Google toys would be activated by a spoken word or phrase which, the patent says, would cause the toy to “aim its gaze at the source of the social cue.” The toys would be built with motors so they could physically open their eyes and turn their heads toward the person delivering the command. They would also have embedded speakers to let them verbally respond to the user, and the ability to mimic emotions – the patent speculates that “to express surprise, [a toy] may make a sudden movement, sit or stand up straight, and/or dilate its pupils.”

Also like the Amazon Echo, Google’s toys would always be listening, even when they’re apparently turned off.

“The anthropomorphic devices may be able to detect movement and sounds even when appearing to be asleep,” the patent states. Google anticipates that the ever-listening devices would be especially appropriate for young children’s bedrooms. The "device may be a doll or toy that resembles a human, an animal, a mythical creature, or an inanimate object,” the patent says, later adding: “young children might find these forms to be attractive.”

The patent was uncovered by tech law firm SmartUp, whose director, Emma Carr, told the BBC that she was concerned about the toys’ ability to record users’ conversation and log their activity. “When those devices are aimed specifically at children, then for many this will step over the creepy line. Children should be able to play in private,” she says.

The toys would be bridges to the “Internet of Things,” the growing web of home devices and appliances that connect to one another and to the Internet. Google’s patent indicates that users would be able to control connected TVs, thermostats, “smart” lights, and other devices by issuing commands to the toys.

A Google spokeswoman told the BBC that the patent doesn’t necessarily mean that Google is planning to develop and sell the toys. “We file patent applications on a variety of ideas that our employees come up with,” she says. “Some of those ideas later mature into real products or services; some don't.”

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