23 Dec 2016 : Configuration over audio: when old things are innovative

My kid has a toy dog called My Pal Scout. It’s a stuffed animal that makes noise, so normally I would have hidden it in a high cupboard straight away, but it’s actually pretty good: you get to configure it with the kid’s name and a bunch of favourite things, and it throws out the information often enough to be engaging. (Also it has a reasonable volume control.)

“I love you, pause E-LIZ-A-BETH”, it says. And “My favourite food is… QUESADILLA”. It’s good enough to forgive it for the twenty seven thousand times I’ve heard it sing “Do you know the muffin man” over the past two years.

You can change the songs, but mostly we don’t, because programming it fills me with minor dread. It involves an app that doesn’t exist for linux (which, fair enough), so I get to haul out my elderly macbook pro (it’s enormous!), search for the charger, dig through a box of cables to find a USB Mini-B, and hook up the dog. After that the app works fine in a too-many-radio-buttons sort of way, but it’s enough of a pain that I talk the kiddo out of changing the thing’s favourite colour or whatever.

Anyway, Biz is still playing with hers two years later, so we ordered one for my niece. And it’s a new model. No USB! Instead it’s got a tiny built in audio cable that tucks in beside the battery pack. There’s no app any more: you go to their website on any device, log in (for no good reason that I can see), and select a bunch of config options. A notice recommends that you turn your volume up loud. Then you plug the dog into your headphone jack like the world’s least likely speaker, and play the config at it. Wow.

This feels very innovative – it’s so much better than the USB workflow – and it kind of blew my mind, but of course it’s super old technology. It’s not that long since we all had modems that worked like that, using audio frequencies to send data. And Joel reminds me that his Sinclair ZX81 (which might sound like a family heirloom at this point but was actually a birthday gift from his dad a few weeks ago) uses cassettes that work the same way.

I didn’t know how it worked, so I went digging and found a thread on the excellent “explain it like I’m five” subreddit.

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