Storypod: What Inspired Us?
At Storypod, our goal is to bring stories to life through amazing storytelling, and imaginative play. We know how much a great story can transport one to another place and time. The same can be said for a great toy.
Being that we are a company made up of young families, we see the opportunity to do both. Storypod is more than just a simple speaker, it’s a portal that can take little listeners forwards or backwards in time, to dimensions unimagined, or to the ends of the earth.
We’ve been inspired by so many things on our journey to create Storypod. Take a look at some of our biggest influences:
Remember the eighties? Maybe we’re dating ourselves, but, we do!! And one of the most beloved toys of that era was none other than Teddy Ruxpin. Do you remember?
Teddy Ruxpin was the first mass market animatronic talking toy on the market. It was the brainchild of a man named Ken Forsse, who had formerly worked for Disney. He started a company called Alchemy with several others who had migrated over from his previous employer as well. There, Forsse and his team took the expertise they had developed while working on projects such as the Country Bear Jamboree to bring a rough prototype of Teddy Ruxpin to life (The Bizarre Story Behind Teddy Ruxpin).
Forsse shopped his product to all the major players including Hasbro and Mattel with no takers. As David Small, Head of Engineering at Worlds of Wonder, explained, companies were expecting that the price point was going to be somewhere in the ballpark of $150 to the end consumer and require extensive technological resources to pull it off. No one wanted to take the chance.That’s when a man named Don Kingsborough decided to dip his toe in.
Overnight, Kingsborough began the startup that would, in short order, take the world by storm, Worlds of Wonder. He chose the name partially based upon it’s acronym: WOW. He took particular delight in seeing WOW show up on the stock exchange ticker.
Kingsborough, an executive with Atari, invited many of his cohorts to take a look at the rough prototype over a little barbeque (The Bizarre Story Behind Teddy Ruxpin ) . Small explained that upon demonstration, he believed in Teddy so much, that he quit a lucrative job overnight as Director of Engineering to take a lead role at the start up.
The prototype that Forsse had developed made use of off the shelf parts and had to be completely retooled from the ground up once Worlds of Wonder took the reins. Small explained that because all the parts were off the shelf, they simply weren’t considered ‘toy grade’ and therefore had to be replaced. When all was said and done retooling had the benefit of driving down the cost of the product: Teddy retailed for closer to $70 (other figures quote at closer to $50). This price made it accessible to a large swath of the buying public and Teddy was set to be a star!!
Much of Teddy’s magic came from the programming on the proprietary tapes that he played. Using a technique common in the animatronics world, the tape was split between two channels. On one channel was the audio that Teddy would speak, but on the other, were somewhat grotesque and robotic pitches that delivered information to Teddy’s motors. These digital signals told Teddy’s motors when and how to move. A cursory glance at Youtube, and you can see a tutorial on how to create your own tapes, provided you have an old four track. Small explained that one of the most difficult tasks was actually masking those control tones so they wouldn’t be heard when playing the tapes.
Kingsborough had set what seemed like an unreachable timeline for releasing Teddy Ruxpin. He aimed for a Christmas release which essentially gave a brand new company 6 months to go from concept to finished product. When David Small arrived at Worlds of Wonder, his office literally had nothing other than his name written on a piece of paper taped to the door of a trailer. Inside, all he found was a telephone. In fact, there was no company money to spend initially. Small stated that whether he needed equipment, or needed to fly to Hong Kong, he had to pay for it himself. Even though they were a start up, they did have some unique skills.
As Small explained, WOW had an ace in the hole: Because of their previous background with Atari, and deep understanding of high volume manufacturing, Worlds of Wonder was able to get five factories in Asia up and running simultaneously within such a very short amount of time. WOW pulled off an amazing feat that to this day would be hard to accomplish. In its first year, Worlds of Wonder did $100 million in sales!! This put WOW squarely as the fastest growing company in the world at the time.
Meanwhile, Paul Rago and others set about the task of building out the world that Ken Forsse had imagined for Teddy. Complete with his backstory (He’s an illiop, not a bear, from Rilonia), a sidekick named Grubby, a nemesis named Tweeg, and a catalog of original stories, Teddy was poised for domination.
WOW added pitched up vocals from Phil Baron, and animation work from Thom Fountain (who went on to work with Chucky from Child’s Play), and soon Teddy was ubiquitous in American households. A television series followed and it seemed like Teddy would be around for generations to come. Unfortunately, disaster was right around the corner...
Worlds of Wonder continued it’s takeover with a little toy known as Laser Tag. But, it wasn’t long before things soured. With the ‘87 recession in full swing, WOW found itself sitting on $300 million worth of inventory it couldn’t move. Worlds of Wonder went from the next toy giant to bankruptcy overnight. Layoffs ensued, with only the core team remaining, and by late 1990, WOW was out of business.
Teddy has since been the subject of multiple iterations and reboots. A version known as TV Teddy, which worked in conjunction with video cassettes and a RF antenna made its way to the market via David Small and Paul Rago’s company Shoot The Moon. Teddy also has made the rounds to different toy companies starting with Hasbro, Yes! Entertainment, and most recently with a company known as Wicked Cool Toys in 2017. With a mobile app, a makeover, and LED eyes for advanced expressions, there was still hope that one of these reboots will capture the imagination of children in the same way that it did all the way back in 1985. A quick look at Wicked Cool Toys website seems to be wiped clean of any mention of Teddy as of date of this publication.
Toys to Life
All the rage just a few scant years ago, some people have claimed the genre is all but dead. And what’s worse is that the companies producing the toys to life are the ones being held responsible for its demise. Toys to life take advantage of a technology known as NFC or, near field communication. Laypeople know the technology as identified by it’s chips known as RFIDs. So how does it work?
You’ve probably been witness to the use of RFID technology, if not by yourself, then at least someone you know, or in a recent movie you’ve watched. Anytime someone swipes their phone to pay for a latte, or someone uses a keycard to get into their secret lab, RFIDs are employed.
Near field communication (NFC) technology can be pared down to two basic components: the RFID chip, and the chip reader. A small amount of current, and an antennae allow for the components to communicate. Companies love RFIDs because they can encode them with all types of interesting things: From being a piggy bank for cryptocurrency to keeping track of inventory, RFIDs provide a lot of versatility.
Gaming companies saw an opportunity to use the technology on their various platforms. The genre exploded with Activision’s Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure. Although technically not the first, this game was the first major game of the era to employ the use of NFC technology in order to augment the way the players experienced the game. The game used figurines equipped with RFID chips and something known as the Portal of Power, a glorified RFID reader, in novel ways that the gaming industry hadn’t thought to use previously. The Skylanders franchise alone has generated sales in the range of $3 billion dollars in just four years. (Gaudiosi)
The public quickly took notice and if you had a child of a certain age at the time, you could be expected to fork over your hard earned dough for some of these plastic figurines….
It wasn’t long before the giants of the gaming industry took notice and created their own versions of Toys to Life. Disney created its own Infinity series, Nintendo introduced amiibo, and Lego created Dimensions. All of these platforms made use of the same basic technology: NFC. In short, figurines were outfitted with RFID chips that when placed on the RFID reader would place that character in the game. Depending on the platform, there were other RFIDs that could be added to augment the landscape in which the player had access to.
Unfortunately, as quickly as the genre appeared, it seems to have disappeared, as well. Gamers complained of too many attempts to monetize by the gaming companies without enough value being added as a large reason for the abandonment of the genre. In fact, for those interested in experiencing Toys to Life games, apparently you can get the figures and readers for next to nothing. Disney discontinued its Infinity series in 2016 (Blackburn), and Lego announced that it had ceased development on its Dimensions in 2017 (LEGO).
But, for some, the adventure continues: Skylanders released a revamped version of Skylanders: Ring of Heroes in December of 2016, Nintendo’s amiibo is ongoing, as well as Beyblade Burst, and Lightseekers: Awakening. Time will tell whether this profitable genre learned from its previous mistakes, or if the bottom has truly dropped out.
Although not specifically a toy, we’d be remiss if we failed to mention the influence that the radio drama genre had upon our creation of the Storypod.
Radio dramas first gained popularity in the 1920’s with radio adaptations of previously existing works. But it didn’t take long before it was clear that the genre provided some benefits that didn’t exist when the stage was involved. Chief among those benefits was the ability to use ‘theater of the mind’ to fill in the story. Through use of sound effects and microphone techniques, the creators of this genre are able to engage audiences’ imaginations in ways that couldn’t be achieved onstage. All of a sudden the crinkling of cellophane becomes a roaring fire, running your fingernail across a plastic pocket comb becomes crickets. The genre had it’s high point with Orson Welles' War of the Worlds which literally scared some people to death (Koch)...
In the United States, radio dramas heyday featured the likes of the Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet, and Sherlock Holmes just to name a few. Unfortunately, with the advent of television, it wasn’t long before the last vestiges of the genre all but disappeared (Cox 145-148).
But, radio dramas still thrive around the world with the likes of the BBC producing hundreds of dramas annually. In places such as India, Ireland, and Japan, radio dramas are still very popular. In Germany, there’s a whole industry known as Hoerspiel that continues to thrive. In fact, Daniel, our CEO conceptualized the idea for Storypod when a health crisis brought him back in touch with his roots. While receiving treatment for his condition, he was able to introduce his young daughter to the same tapes that enthralled him when he was a child. It was then that he had the classic ‘aha moment’ that inspired the creation of Storypod.
With podcasts reviving the genre by reducing the cost of production, there is a whole new wave of radio dramas that have been produced since the 2010s. So there is a possibility that we’ll see another golden age of radio dramas in the coming years.
A Dash of this, A Sprinkle of That
So now you know some of what inspired us! Our mission is to promote screen free, brain healthy activities that get children exploring their world in new and imaginative ways. We added a big dollop of Teddy, a pinch of Toys to Life, a cup and a half of radio drama reimagined, and a heaping helping of care to bring you the Storypod. Whether it’s our award winning production team, producing amazing songs, original stories, fairy tales retold, or scientific explorations, we know you’ll enjoy it. We trust it with our own children, and we know your little learners will love it too!! It’s time to start the fun!!