“Hello Barbie” Under The Knife

In February, Google and Mattel introduced their Hello Barbie Internet-connected toy. This Barbie has an internal microphone, a WiFi connection to Google’s voice recognition services, and a speaker to carry on a “conversation” with the targeted child.

Like the folks at Somerset Recon, we’d say that this is an Internet of Things (IoT) device that’s just begging for a teardown, and we’re totally looking forward to their next installment when they pore through the firmware.

BarbieTeardown2On the hardware front, Barbie looks exactly like what you’d expect on the inside. A Marvell 88MW300 WiFi SoC talks to a 24-bit (!) audio codec chip, and runs code from a 16Mbit flash ROM. There’s some battery management, and what totally looks like a JTAG port. There’s not much else, because all the brains are “in the cloud” as you kids say these days.

From day to day we alternate between the promise of IoT and being anti-IoT curmudgeons, so it should come as no surprise that we’re of two minds about Hello Barbie. First, there’s the creepy-factor of having your child’s every word overheard by a faceless corporation with “evil” in their mission statement (see what we did there?). Next, we’re not sure that it’s OK to record everything your child says to a toy and listen to it later, even if you are the parent. Hackaday’s [Sarah Petkus] summarized this neatly in this article.

But mostly, we’re curious about how well the thing actually works and what it will do with naughty words. And who will take on the task of reviving the Barbie Liberation Organization? Now we totally want to go out and buy one of these things.

43 thoughts on ““Hello Barbie” Under The Knife

  1. I remember the “circuit boards” of my toys as a child. The crappy substrate with the black blob of epoxy. It’s incredible to see what we a have in a toy like this. Or for that matter, what you get in an Amazon Dash button. Incredible!

    1. As a kid I opened up a talking robot. It had a plastic “record” player inside it. A simple motor turned a plastic disk which had a needle that was in a plastic “sounder”. Other than the motor there was no electronics. There were some clever mechanics to get it to play one rotation and stop. Those black blobs were amazing technology to me when I got older :)

      1. There was the one my sister had as far on as the early 1990s, worked the same way. You put a card in, which had a notch that moved a lever. It would choose a track, “How many are there?” or some other question. The three buttons had multiple choice answers, that chose “Onnngggg! Try again” or “Innngggg! You’re right!”.

        All mechanical, very clever, and again the only electrics were a C battery working the motorised splindle.

        1. Reminds me of my GeoSafari, it had several add on cartridges that added extra functionality, but it didn’t take me long to figure out that if the overlay had the same pattern of notches in the edge, that the question on one side correlated with the same answer on the other. Can’t remember which parent did which, but one was upset that I had “outsmarted” it and that it was basically a waste of money, and the other was like “Well, he still learned something that not a lot of kids would have picked up on!” and I still learned from the different things that came with it, just differently.

    2. Ah, so for you the “Toy” was just the wrapping like the wrapping on an XMAS present and the real “gift” was the circuit board inside.

      I was much the same. I very quickly learnt how to take things apart but it took me a much longer time to learn how to put things back together.

    1. Simplest way to get rid of these things is to do the opposite, Detect them and send audio to them.
      Once the average soccer mom hears her little darling turning the air blue, and finds out she’s just copying her Barbie then there’ll be an army of moms screaming for them to be banned.

    1. Awesome, I had no idea these were a thing. “Choking Hazard. Small Parts. Not for children under 3 years.” I’m guessing that’s probably a genuine legal requirement rather than a joke? :)

  2. Not sure if I should be interested, disturbed or both when RealDoll or somebody else comes up with this exact same thing but life sized and, um, realistic and then somebody like Ifixit decides to take it apart and fully, um, document it.

    Uncanny valley, here we come!

  3. A microphone connected to the internet in a children’s toy, it’s bad enough having a mobile phone spying on everyone within earshot. I can understand the shortcut of getting the interaction for less processing power but perhaps it’s a little too far across the line when it’s a children’s toy.
    I’d love to see this at least running on local wifi only. Perhaps using some sort of rainbow table style response coupled with a basic neural network.

    1. I guess it would work if your local network had a Watson system on it. Watson employs a cluster of ninety IBM Power 750 servers, each of which uses a 3.5 GHz POWER7 eight core processor, with four threads per core. In total, the system has 2,880 POWER7 processor threads and 16 terabytes of RAM.[19].

      A bit more power than your basic neural network…

      I assume Hello Barbie no longer finds math to be hard.

    2. That would be likely the least dangerous place for a mic connected to the internet. On the other hand, any device with that function put in common places where you talk freely would pose a much greater risk.

      Ever got back from work screaming that you’d like your boss dead, in front of your SO protected by your home privacy? Now do the same near a IP microphone that sends parts of conversations to a server running voice recognition software which raises a red flag somewhere.

  4. Or, hack together a fully-customizable version of this, and become famous and beloved in the process:
    • Acquire an ordinary Barbie doll (or any other object your child can relate to), and a Bluetooth transceiver that will fit inside it.
    • Acquire an Amazon Echo (“Alexa”).
    • Put together a little controller that will listen for one or a few words/names that you specify (should be a piece of pie on something like a Teensy). Hook another Bluetooth transceiver to it, and hardwire the controller’s I/O to the Echo’s audio I/O. When the specified word is received by your controller, replace it in the audio stream with “Alexa” and pass the stream along to the Echo. Voilà! You’ve just enabled the customizable “wake word” that Echo owners dream of!
    • Now, write some Alexa “skills” to provide whatever interaction your child’s heart desires. Volià encore! You have an infinitely-expandable voice companion for your child (or yourself, as in the RealDoll idea suggested above by [Waterjet]). Also, note that the Echo can work with SmartThings devices, so there’s lots of physical interaction possible.
    • Oh, and… Profit!

  5. I wonder what religion Barbie follows. What are her politics? And of course this doll will have unfettered access to your child’s innermost thoughts.

    Child – I want to be a scientist!
    Barbie – Oh honey, math is hard. You should stay home to clean, cook for your man and have a whole bunch of babies. That is what a girl should dream about.
    Child – Gosh Barbie, did you know that you are really stupid?
    Barbie – Yes. And you can be just like me.

  6. You all have no idea the lengths Mattel will go to so as to protect their brand. Remember sony and r/w cd drives? That is mild compared to what I have seen them do to ex employees that smuggled out prototypes.

    Have fun while it lasts.

  7. Yep, heaven forbid a parent might actually have to turn off the tv/tablet/phone and spend some time having meaningful conversations with their children themselves. Let the internet do your job, then you can blame someone else when your kid doesn’t turn out the way you want them to.

    sarcasm aside, I love technology that helps my kids grow and learn, but this just seems like it goes too far for what it provides. I get it, parenting is hard and it’s a sacrifice, but that’s the life you chose when you decided to conceive children. Technology will never be a better parent than you are, and you will never become a better parent if you expect someone (or something) else to do the work all the time. I wouldn’t let my kids wander around the mall by themselves (before you attempt to be pedantic, the intended audience for any barbie toy is, by any stretch of the imagination, too young to wander a mall by themselves) any more than I would allow them to search the internet by themselves.

  8. I have no problem with child interacting with google voice, but only if the child _know_ it’s talking to google voice. Dolls are often used by girls to simulate interpersonal reactions; the child introduces a situation, and the child images how it should react and makes it to play to the doll. Then after she sees the reaction decides if the reaction was appropriate: if was feeling right other dolls suggest other things to do, if it was out of place other try to moderate or argument ensues. When the real world situation happens, the girls will employ the most successful reaction. The doll is just used to make the situation more realistic.

  9. I think this doll is eligible for a man in the middle attack?
    Or at least a redirect attack to contact a child?
    As a parent I could ask for chores or Santa wish list thru Barbie?
    Or an outsider something sinister?

  10. “The chip to the left of the AW-CU300E is a Gigadevice GD25Q16 16Mbit SPI Flash (U2), and is the system’s main non-volatile memory. This is where the doll’s firmware and resource files are stored.”

    Can’t comment on their site it seems.. but if they (the people that developed this product) have done it right the firmware will be encrypted and signed, the JTAG turned off and the keys for the decryption stored in the OTP flash inside the MCU.
    I’m not sure why they can see an SSL certificate (probably used for client authentication) there as that stuff can be encrypted too.

    1. Presumably, “can be”, but isn’t, encrypted. And would you bother encrypting the firmware for a Barbie? Anything goes wrong with it, you blame “hackers”, it’s fine. If Sony and AT&T don’t cop any blame for storing their customers’ data in plaintext, Mattel aren’t going to.

      Expect a lot of kids to YVAN EHT NIOJ a decade or so after they do the GI Joe version.

  11. “First, there’s the creepy-factor of having your child’s every word overheard by a faceless corporation with “evil” in their mission statement (see what we did there?).”

    Google says, “I will do no evil” – then does evil.

    It’s like: “Mine will be the most transparent Administration in history” – yeah, I believe you too.

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