When ToyTalk’s founders, Oren Jacob and Martin Reddy, began the company in 2011, the most obvious application for their automated conversation technology—which orchestrates speech recognition, natural language processing, and selection of dialogue in real time—was toys. Both founders were familiar with children’s stories, having 26 years at Pixar between them, and they began making mobile games, like The Winston Show and SpeakaLegend, with characters that could converse with kids. Soon, they hatched partnerships that gave voice to characters like Barbie and Thomas the Tank Engine.
What ToyTalk had done differently was to loop creative writers directly into the process of authoring automated conversation—instead of just voices, the characters got personalities. Through an authoring program called PullString, these writers were able to create dialogue for the characters without having to have any programming knowledge.
Now, as chatbots—software programs that communicate with humans by using artificial intelligence—have proliferated, that’s something more and more companies want to do. To reflect a shift in strategy, ToyTalk has now changed its name to PullString; while it will still use its technology for toys, it will also market its authoring tool to other types of companies that want to chat with customers on platforms like Facebook or Slack. (Facebook recently unveiled new functionality for chatbots on Messenger, envisioning users making dinner reservations, booking flights, and making purchases via automated chat conversations.) “Like you would download Photoshop to play with a digital image, like you would download Excel to play in a spreadsheet,” Jacob says, “developers who want to create bots can download PullString and create an experience using that technology.”
Back in 2011, on the same week Jacob and Reddy closed their first round of venture capital, Apple launched its voice-controlled assistant Siri, who not only conveyed information, but told an occasional joke. “That has opened up talking to characters and talking to computers, and the use of natural language as a message beyond keyboard and mouse and touchscreen to interact,” Jacob says.
Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana followed. As did chatbots that act as nurses, who both question patients about medical conditions and commiserate with them. The proliferation of chat interfaces like WeChat, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Slack have extended potential applications for chatbots even further. NBC-owned Breaking News made a chatbot that pings users with customized news alerts inside of Slack. Taco Bell made a Slack TacoBot that will take your order. Kik and Microsoft both recently released tools for authoring chatbots. So did native advertising startup Outbrain.
PullString will compete on the premise that its tool was built with character building in mind—that you’re freed up to focus on conversational style rather than coding. “When a company is texting to a customer back and forth, the word choice matters,” Jacob says. “The tone. The mood. The style of what is said matters. It matters because Coke isn’t Pepsi, and Pepsi isn’t Coke. It matters because people don’t want to be spoken to in preselected word choice.”
Some technology companies are hiring playwrights, poets, and other creative writers to author personalities for automated conversations. For this new type of writing, PullString is betting that they’ll also need a new type of notebook—and that they’ll want to borrow Barbie’s.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated the number of years ToyTalk’s founders worked at Pixar.