By Leanne G.
[A full list of MS@45 content, resources and the schedule for our online experiences on the weekend of April 4-5 can be found here. Join in the celebration with us! #MSFT45]
Here at Living Computers: Museum + Labs we have a massive collection and only a handful can be displayed at any given time. Some artifacts we acquire in bulk acquisitions, other times it’s just an interesting piece of software or hardware that’s worth preserving. Today we are highlighting one of the oddest pieces in our collection: the Microsoft ActiMates Barney Doll.
By the mid-90s, Microsoft had already been hugely successful with various products over the years, but the ActiMates toys were their attempt to get into the toy market. For these toys, Microsoft utilized microelectronics to make the dolls move and to respond to stimuli such as voice commands or hand gestures.
But the ActiMates Barney was more than just a doll, it was an innovative gateway to early child computer learning. This version of Barney was designed to be an interactive toy that would respond to computer programs or what was happening on the TV screen. While Barney could be used as a stand-alone toy, the main selling-point was its interactivity with the PC and television (which could only be achieved by purchasing additional Microsoft hardware and software).
Some interesting highlights:
- As a stand-alone toy, Microsoft ActiMates Barney has a 2,000 word vocabulary and is able to sing 17 songs in addition to being able to play 12 different games. These functions can be accessed by activating the various sensors throughout the plush's body.
- When combined with the TV Pack (an RF transmitter that plugs into a VCR with specifically-encoded VHS tapes) Barney becomes your viewing buddy while watching the episodes and responds to certain events as they happen on the screen.
- The PC Pack (a CD-ROM and RF transmitter to plug into the computer) gave Barney an additional 12,000 word vocabulary! It makes use of a special programming library called “ToyAPI.” When not using the toy, Barney would appear on the computer screen. ActiMates Barney could also help the user in the various PC games. Like in stand-alone mode, Barney can play Peekaboo with the characters in the PC games.
- Microsoft had codenamed this project “Gepetto” in a nod to another famous doll brought to life.
Barney was a huge hit when it first debuted at the New York Toy Fair in 1997 and hit the shelves that holiday season. Microsoft manufactured a few different titular characters
from popular children’s shows all designed with similar interactive capabilities. Although the doll was a hit from the start, it would eventually be discontinued when Microsoft lost the patent rights in 2005. But for those brief years in the changing landscape of personal computing, the ActiMates dolls showed us an innovative—and slightly odd—way to put technology in the hands of the younger generation.