There are some hit toys from the 1960s that were genuine classics – so much so that they are still with us today. This year, Ken Dolls, Easy-Bake Ovens, Hot Wheels toy cars and Barbie DreamHouses will all find real estate underneath the nation's Christmas trees. Some other offerings of the Camelot era, on the other hand, did not stand the test of time so well. Chatty Cathy is widely remembered but not often missed, the Light Brite burned out some time in the early era of the computer and the Suzy Homemaker briefly challenged the Easy-Bake Oven’s throne, but lacked its staying power.
And then there were the little Walt Disney Read-Along Books and Records, first released in 1965. Each book ran a tight 24 pages and came with a 7-inch record that read the story to its young owner.
They were a smashing success. Children raced to collect the books, favored for the bits of dialogue, sounds and songs of the popular Disney movies and cartoons from which they were adapted. And there was the noise, the tinkling of Tinkerbell’s that told readers it was time to turn the page.
But though the Disney Read-Along Books and Records burned bright in consumer affections, they burned short. Their popularity declined along with vinyl recordings – by 1984, they were all officially recorded on cassette, and by the end of the 1990s, they had more or less faded forever from the market.
But this is 2018, the year of the reboot and the relaunch. And in a world where Christmas toy catalogs are making a comeback and FAO Schwarz is re-opening its doors in Manhattan just in time for Christmas, perhaps it should be unsurprising that the read-along book is making a comeback as well, once again brought to the world by Disney.
But what might be a bit unexpected is that this time around, Google and its Google Home Assistant are along for the ride.
For the 2018 version, Google – in partnership with Disney and Random House – is rolling out an interactive storytelling feature in its Google Home technology. Currently, titles like Moana, Toy Story 3, Coco and Jack-Jack Attack, along with classics like Peter Pan, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, The Three Little Pigs, Mickey Mouse and His Spaceship, and Mickey’s Christmas Carol are all Little Golden Book titles currently available to read along with Google. The new line of books will be on the shelves for the soft start of the holiday shopping season – the first week of November – at a variety of major retailers.
To get started, users activate the skill by saying, “Hey Google, let’s read along with Disney.”
Unlike the read-alongs of yore, the new version does not read the text to children – that falls to either the young reader or the parent. Instead, Google will play relevant sound effects and music to enhance the storytelling experience. And, unlike the mid-century version, the Google Assistant is a better listener, and has a better idea of when to play its part. When the reader skips ahead in the book, for example, the device can keep up. If the story is interrupted because a new reader is struggling over a word, the Assistant plays ambient music in the background until the story is back underway.
There are also some reported issues with the system function. The ambient music is occasionally a bit too loud, according to some reviewers, which tends to make it a bit harder for readers to hear sound effects, especially younger, less certain readers. And some stories, according to some early reviews, are a bit lacking for interesting sound effects.
But most early reviews also conclude that, so far, the idea has merit, even if it needs some tweaking – and that taking the narrator out and making the Google Assistant an active, but backgrounded, part of story time is a smart play.
Google’s new push isn’t Disney's first foray into the world of programming for voice assistants. It already offers games through Google Home and Amazon, and it programs special content on the Echo Dots Kids Edition, including an exclusive “Disney Stores” offering.
But unlike the House of Mouse’s Amazon offering, Disney Stories isn’t an interactive event. More like the older model of the Disney Read-Alongs, the narrator just reads it to the listener. And it’s not designed to work with accompanying physical books.
While it’s interesting, given Amazon's origins, to see any one firm get ahead of Amazon by leveraging physical books combined with cutting-edge technology, it is interesting to see the Google Voice ecosystem coming around to the idea that perhaps it should start tapping into the kid – more accurately, the parent – consumer market. A market in which they now realize, or are about to realize, they are running quite behind.
Amazon’s hold on parents – particularly young bridge millennials – is incredibly strong already: A full 25 percent already report Amazon as their preferred digital shopping destination. And Amazon’s been working hard to strengthen that bond throughout 2018. For example, they launched a slate of kid-centric Alexa content called FreeTime On Alexa. And they are very actively courting skills developers with a focus on content for children, with those skills that offer educational content for kids under 16 eligible for Developer Rewards (Amazon's program for paying successful developers for their skills).
On the book front, Amazon also made a move on the littlest demographic with the launch of the Prime Book Box service for kids up to 12 years old, which sends curated reading selections to children on a monthly, bi-monthly or quarterly basis.
But blending a book service and a voice assistant skill is unique to Google, thus far. And it is perhaps a clever way to move in on the nation’s biggest-spending demographic – parents – by offering a way to make the Google Home devices seem more smart toy-like. Because parents, particularly younger parents, love buying smart toys.
And they particularly love spending money on educational toys – especially if those toys are wired up. MediaPost noted that 65 percent of older millennial parents said they’d pay between $41 and $60 for a “smart” toy, while 23 percent said they’d spend “upwards to $80 or more for a connected toy.”
It likely won’t be enough on its own to make parents switch away from Alexa, which on the whole has a lot more kid-focused content and a bigger head start in programming it. But it demonstrates that Google is getting more into the game, and thinking inventively about how it can offer some tweaked variations on things like using a voice assistant to read a bedtime story in a way that helps out and makes it more interesting, but lets a parent or child still do the reading.
But for now, we’ll have to wait and see if the way to the consumer’s voice-activated speaker pocketbook is through the eyes – and ears – of their kids.