“Alexa 2-in-1 Kitchen and Market” incorporates the voice assistant for children’s play and learning

[Raising questions about the nature (and potentially the ethics) of children’s presence experiences, a new product for young children utilizes Alexa in the ‘pretend’ play, as reported in this story from CNET. See the original version for a second image, a 0:40 minute promotional video and a 6:03 minute first-look video from the New York Toy Fair. –Matthew]

[Image: KidKraft makes the Alexa 2-in-1 Kitchen and Market, a $300 play set that interacts with the Amazon Alexa voice assistant (Echo not included). Credit: KidKraft.]

The first Alexa toy is a $300 kitchen for kids, packed with dad jokes

We check out a prototype at New York Toy Fair to see how Amazon’s voice assistant plays with preschoolers.

By Bridget Carey
February 22, 2020

Kids can play with Alexa in their very own $300 pretend kitchen and grocery store, with the Amazon voice assistant dishing out cooking advice, shopping help and plenty of goofy toddler humor. The Alexa 2-in-1 Kitchen and Market, from toymaker KidKraft, is making its debut at this weekend’s New York Toy Fair.

The deluxe wooden play set will be sold on Amazon.com next year and includes dozens of accessories that prompt various reactions from Alexa. Not included: Alexa itself, which would come from parents’ Echo smart speaker, designed to sit at the center of the play set.

Amazon has been on a mission to prove its products are family friendly, and that includes getting Alexa into the toy box. The company has been in private beta with various developers to make games and smart toys that work with Alexa. We’ve seen games use Alexa as a timer and score keeper, but KidKraft’s creation takes things to a whole new level: It uses a mix of RFID sensors and Bluetooth to tell Alexa which pretend food items kids are buying and cooking.

Boiling down how it works

KidKraft is still working out all the programming details of how kids will talk to Alexa in this play mode. A staged prototype being demoed at Toy Fair gives a generic idea: Alexa speaks only when a sensor on the play set is activated. Put a toy hot dog into the pot on the stove, and Alexa knows you’re cooking hot dogs. Kids hear the splash sound effect, and Alexa alerts when the hot dogs are done cooking and to hurry up and get the buns.

“If they get cold, they will be chili dogs,” she says.

KidKraft is an established toy company in the pretend-play space, selling chic wooden kitchens that touch on modern trends. So it’s not far-fetched for one of its play sets to include the latest tech when today’s 3-year-olds already talk to their parents’ Alexa device. The twist here is that KidKraft is creating a program that works in the Amazon Alexa world, one that helps kids learn about cooking meals and shopping as they play.

The fun begins when a parent opens up the Amazon app and adds a new functionality to Alexa — in this case, a KidKraft-made program, also known as an Alexa “skill.” Then the parent or child can ask Alexa to start the KidKraft program on a smart speaker, such as the Echo. Now Alexa is ready to work with the kitchen and market.

There’s no need for kids to keep uttering the hot word “Alexa” to get the assistant to react while they play. In fact, the mic isn’t always active. The voice assistant is designed to only talk or ask questions based on how kids play with the accessories.

The accessories that come with the kitchen and market, which include fake food, cookware and a credit card, are fitted with RFID chips, and sensors can tell which items are at the register, stovetop or cutting board. The play set then relays that info to the smart speaker via Bluetooth.

So, if a kid places lettuce on the market scanner, it could prompt Alexa to say, “Lettuce! Are we making a salad?” And if a kid says, “Yes,” Alexa will say, “Great! I love salad. Maybe get some avocado, too.”

KidKraft says the program features more than 700 different voice commands and responses in total, chiming in with prompts for a recipe, a shopping list of ingredients or to start up a game.

The play set is also programmed with several games Alexa can play. For example, the Secret Ingredient Game challenges kids to guess which food Alexa is thinking of, based on clues. Then kids have to scan the right item at the checkout counter.

There’s a bundle of recipe cards designed to be inserted into a slot. Slide in a card, and Alexa will tell you all the ingredients you need to get at the store.

Scan the hot dog and buns at the checkout counter, and Alexa will tell you the total bill. (Along with suggesting you buy some antacid for those hot dogs, questioning why humans even eat hot dogs. The dad humor is strong in this demo.) Kids then can open a cash register or use their credit card.

“Let’s get back to the kitchen,” Alexa says.

There was a clear balance of how Alexa will let kids just do their own thing in this make-believe world as they scan food or put items in the pot. And yet I wish we could’ve demoed the experience of the voice-recognition interaction.

A promotional video, which you can see embedded below, offers a taste. Kids tell Alexa they want to cook a Brontosaurus pizza, and Alexa responds, “That will be dino-mite!”

If a parent doesn’t want to hand over the Echo for playtime, the kitchen and market will still make some sound effects, such as turning on the water faucet or the gas stove top. Kids just won’t get the Alexa interactions.

It’s unusual to put Alexa at the center of a toy, but industry analyst Juli Lennet, a vice president at the NPD Group, says it’s a more interesting blend of tech than she’s seen before.

“It’s different, and I always like things that have a classic play pattern but have a twist, and this definitely is that.”

Toy industry insiders that CNET interviewed have said they’re seeing a decline in toys tied to technology, as parents are looking to limit screen time for kids hooked on video games, phones and tablets. But the KidKraft recipe may be a way to reverse that trend. It merges today’s tech into physical play, but with just a voice instead of a screen.

And yet, the audience for this play kitchen is limited. An Adobe study estimates that 36% of consumers own a smart speaker. That said, Amazon is dominating the category and growing. The company recently said Alexa smart home engagement has nearly doubled year over year, with Alexa on 100 million devices.

Stirring the pot of privacy worries

The KidKraft team seems well aware that it has to be careful about privacy when cooking up a toy that works with Alexa. Staff at Toy Fair were comparing this to a “concept car,” as the team is taking its time to get things right.

When it comes to kids using voice assistants, Amazon has faced plenty of criticism, questions and concerns over data collection and how kids should be interacting with the technology. Last year, children’s advocates called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the Echo Dot Kids Edition — a candy-colored version of the smart speaker with parental controls — for collecting sensitive data on children that parents couldn’t delete. Amazon is also facing two lawsuits that allege Amazon’s smart speakers recorded kids without their consent.

To address concerns, Amazon requires Alexa programs for kids, including this one made by KidKraft, to follow stricter content guidelines. Programs for kids can’t include any advertising, sell anything, collect any personal information or include content that’s not suitable for all ages.

Amazon Director of Alexa Gadgets Kyle Laughlin said in an email to CNET that the company takes the concerns seriously, and parents have to be the ones to approve of downloading such a program in the first place.

“We believe voice will be a big part of the future,” Laughlin said. “Technology — in general — is not a replacement for parenting, but we think child-directed products and skills can provide a fun, interactive, and educational experience.”

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