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My Friend Cayla is a sophisticated interactive doll with voice recognition, capable of answering millions of questions thanks to clever internet connectivity.
NB: requires an iOS or Android device
Although you need a few elements to get the most out of Cayla - an iOS or Android device, an app, a decent wifi connection, and some sensible questions - she definitely represents a big step forward in interactive toys and is a clear indicator of where similar dolls will be going in the future.
My Friend Cayla Review
Interactive. Depending on your experience and expectations it's either a weasel word used by marketeers to promote toys that are at best mediocre, or an exciting descriptor of modern toys that respond to children's actions and react to their environment.
My Friend Cayla was launched in 2014 to a fanfare of superlatives from the manufacturers, not least that she is a truly "interactive" doll. "Ask her any range of questions, from her likes and dislikes to general knowledge and tomorrow's weather, and she'll tell you the answer" the marketing blurb read.
We took Cayla through her paces and were pleasantly surprised by what we found.
First of all, My Friend Cayla is a pretty decent doll. Well made, with a high-quality outfit consisting of a demin jacket, printed t-shirt, denim leggings and flannel skirt. Finished off with All-Star-style trainers.
My Friend Cayla is a quality doll
She has a heart-shaped necklace which is part of the interactive system (see below), and comes with a mirror and a hairbrush. Her hair is long and pleasant to the touch, so girls who enjoy hair-brushing will appreciate the doll for this alone.
Before buying, be aware that you need a compatible bluetooth device to make use of all of the My Friend Cayla functions. This means an iOS or Android phone, tablet or other similar device that can run the app and connect to the doll via bluetooth.
If you're not sure whether your device is compatible, see the official My Friend Cayla website for help.
Now, on to the best bits. Cayla's strongest feature is the ability to recognize spoken words - questions for example - and respond 'intelligently'. This is done by connecting the doll via bluetooth to a smart device, which acts as a conduit between the doll and the internet, looking up responses from Vivid's servers and relaying them back to the doll.
The first consideration for this type of interactivity is child safety, and we can report that Cayla is very good at filtering inappropriate questions and language. This works at several levels - the built-in software maintains a list of stop words and phrases, which if encountered will immediately result in a response that Cayla cannot talk about those things. You can add additional stop words via the app.
Cayla can play simple games - tic-tac-toe (or noughts and crosses) is included, and Cayla is a competent player, and children at the target age will enjoy playing with her. More games are in the pipeline, and being a connected toy firmware updates will be available without additional cost or wait.
Tic-tac-toe is included, more games are promised
Cayla tells stories, sometimes about experiences she has had. For example one story is about a trip to a garden, and via the app your child can view a photo album and select them to hear Cayla talk more about them. This is of limited long-term appeal but is a fun feature that our test enjoyed.
The main USP of My Friend Cayla is the ability to 'chat' with children, answer questions and respond in reasonably natural language. When Cayla is 'listening', her necklace lights up, prompting your child to speak to her. In practice it works a bit like this:
Turn on Cayla and she'll speak a greeting like "Hello", then say a little bit about a subject likely to be of interest to girls, and then ask a question, such as a "What's your favourite" question. Then she'll listen for an answer.
We found the recognition to be hit and miss - sometimes Cayla would appear to understand the answer, and develop the chat with either a related question or a statement about a similar topic, and at other times she would completely ignore the answer and head off on some completely unrelated topic.
This is not a problem for 5 year-old girls however, according to our testing. The facts that Cayla responds at all, that she speaks broadly intelligible language, that she talks about subjects girls are interested in (ballet, gymnastics, food, travel), and that she has an active listening mode, all of these together engaged our tester tremendously.
The My Friend Cayla Doll isn't going to pass the Turing test any time soon, but then she isn't intended to. As an interactive doll for children who enjoy chatting and playing with dolls she's about as good as it gets - at £40-50 she's good value, and likely to hold a child's interest longer than a standard dolly.
If you're not sold on the interactive features, or don't have compatible tech, you may be better looking at a more traditional range like Baby Born or Baby Annabell.