Robotics, surveillance and AI: The tech toys of the 90s

The 90s was a golden age for toys, with Power Rangers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles riding high in the popularity stakes. However, the decade was also famous for introducing some “cutting-edge” technology into the hands of the world’s children, pre-empting some major technology trends in AI, robotics and surveillance.

Furby

When Stephen Hawking recently spoke about artificial intelligence bringing down the human race, he must had a flashback to these creepy things, released back in 1998.

Read more: Is it possible that a robot will be doing your job in 2025?

Furby was essentially a small domestic robot which spoke in its own annoying language called Furbish. Eventually, the toy would begin to introduce English phrases into its vocabulary in order to mimic the process of learning a new language.

The development of these language skills, alongside the ability to interact with other Furby dolls, made the toy hugely popular, with more than 40 million units sold during its initial three year run.

A commonly-held misconception that Furbys could record and repeat what was said around them led to the NSA banning them from the premises in 1999. Why anyone would bring a child’s toy to the top-secret intelligence agency is unclear, but such was the threat posed by the cuddly spies, the NSA had to intervene.

Talkboy

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Like a hipster Edward Snowden, Talkboy was bringing surveillance to the masses before it was cool.

The device was originally conceived as a prop for the second Home Alone film, before huge demand led Tiger Electronics to manufacture a retail version. The original Talkboy was a handheld cassette player and recorder with an extendable microphone and the option of slowing down and speeding up playback.

Tiger eventually produced a number of spin-off versions, included a much more discrete Talkboy FX Plus, which came in the shape of a pen and included a number of pre-set sound effects.

Admittedly, later versions of Talkboy only had enough space for 12 seconds of recording (a fact that they bizarrely decided to boast about in their adverts), but still, think about all that personal data recorded without permission.

Lego Mindstorms

Lego Mindstorms was launched in 1998 and finally brought your Lego creations to life. Using the Robotic Command eXplorers brick (RCX), you could upload a program from a Windows or Mac computer using the device’s infrared (IR) interface and make your bricks move and operate in any way you liked.

Mindstorms has since gone on to become the best-selling product in the Lego Group range, spawning numerous spin-off sets and even its own worldwide robotics competition. Some might say that Lego is for kids, but with Lego Mindstorms, especially the Star Wars developer kits, the Danish company showed it was for technology fans of all ages.

Tamagotchi

90s kids who were far too lazy to look after a real pet could get their animal companionship through their Tamagotchi, and not have to feel guilty when they got bored after a week.

Named after a combination of the Japanese word for “egg” and the English word “watch,” the Tamagotchi was a handheld digital pet that user’s got to raise from birth right up until the bitter end. Causes of death could include poor care (i.e. not clearing up the poo it did every 15 seconds), old age, sickness, and in some versions, predators.

While Japanese editions often featured a headstone following a pet’s death, the sensitive English market sometimes saw a UFO appear instead, indicating that the pet had returned to its home planet, presumably after having enough of our lacklustre care.

Tiger LCD games

Tiger LCD

What’s that? You wanted a Gameboy for Christmas? Well, it was too expensive so we got you this Tiger LCD game instead. I’m sure it’s just as good.

Read more: Tablets now more popular with kids for gaming than Nintendo 3DS

Unfortunately, for disadvantaged children growing up in the 1990s, Tiger’s standalone handhelds never could compete with Nintendo’s hugely successful console. Tiger still had some of video game’s best- known franchises including Sonic the Hedgehog, Megaman and Castlevania, but instead of fully-realised titles, players got static images and repetitive gameplay.