Apple you’ve just bought the talent you need to make talking toys a part of Siri, HomePod, and your voice strategy. Apple has acquired PullString, also known as ToyTalk, according to Axios’ Dan Primack and Ina Fried. TechCrunch received confirmation of the acquisition from sources with knowledge of the deal. The startup creates voice experience design tools, artificial intelligence to power those experiences, and toys like talking to Barbie and Thomas The Tank Engine in partnership with Mattel. Founded in 2011 by former Pixar executives, PullString raised $ 44 million.
Apple’s Siri is seen as lagging far behind Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, not just in speech recognition and usability, but also in terms of developer ecosystem. Google and Amazon have created platforms to distribute Skills from thousands of voice app creators, including stories, quizzes, and other games for kids. If Apple wants to make a real decision to become the center of your Siri and HomePod-connected living room, it will need to play nice with the kids who spend their time there. Buying PullString It could boost Apple’s internal catalog of speech-activated toys for children, as well as bolster its tools for voice developers.
PullString ran into some trouble for being a “child surveillance device” in 2015, but it responded by referring to the security built into Hello Barbie’s product and said it had never been hacked to steal children’s voice recordings or other confidential information. Privacy rules have changed since many people buy Echos and Google Homes who are always listening.
In 2016, it changed its name to PullString with a focus on developer tools that allow you to visually map conversations and publish finished products on the Google and Amazon platforms. Given SiriKit’s complexity and lack of functionality, PullString’s Converse platform could pave the way for many more developers to join the creation of voice products for Apple devices.
We reached out to Apple and PullString for more details on whether PullString and ToyTalk products will continue to be available.
The startup got its cash from investors like Khosla Ventures, CRV, Greylock, First Round and True Ventures, with a series D in 2016 as its latest raise that PitchBook says values the startup at $ 160 million. While the voicetech space has exploded since then, it can still be difficult for voice experience developers to make money without accompanying physical products, and many companies are still unsure of what to build with tools like the ones PullString offers. That could have led the startup to see a brighter future with Apple, empowering one of the most ubiquitous but also hated voice assistants.