The Furby was "coded for cuteness"

Released in 1998 by Tiger Electronics, more than 40 million Furbies were sold in its first three years of life. What made this bizarre animatronic toy so damn popular?

At IEEE Spectrum, Allison Marsh looks at the engineering behind this pioneering social robot:

The Furby's source code was written by David Hampton and Wayne Schulz to run on a variation of the 6502 microprocessor, the 8-bit chip that powered the Apple II, Commodore 64, and BBC Micro. The source code is well documented, making it easy to follow regardless of your knowledge of assembly. After a computer programmer posted the source code online last August, one commenter on Hacker News praised it for being "surprisingly sophisticated."

But reading lines of code doesn't equal the lived experience. In Hampton and Schulz's comments on how the Furby's voice pitch was controlled, for instance, they noted that the maximum range was "very squeeeeeke…."

Fresh out of the box, a Furby speaks its native tongue of Furbish, an invented language that incorporates aspects of Thai, Mandarin, and Hebrew. It might say "Dah-ay-loh u-tye," when it wakes up, which literally translates as "big light up," but it is simply saying good morning. The vocabulary of the early Furbys included 42 words. Over time, as children played with their toy, its language ability seemingly evolved. In time, the Furby might start speaking English or 23 other languages, but this function was preprogrammed.

"Coded for Cuteness: How the Furby Conquered Hearts and Minds"

Photo: Mark Richards/Computer History Museum