Hello Barbie: Meet Union’s MakerWeb

Consortium is hosting “Hello Barbie Teardown Sessions,” to encourage co-curricular Making across campus
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Hello Barbie: Meet Union’s MakerWeb

Shortly after Mattel released “Hello Barbie” in time for the recent holiday shopping season, critics pounced, claiming the latest doll exposed a host of security and privacy concerns.

An Internet of Things (IoT) toy, the $75 doll uses voice recognition software and a Wi-Fi connection to have a two-way dialogue with a child. Mattel has recorded more than 8,000 lines of dialogue, and the doll will remember a kid’s name and their likes and dislikes.

The child’s voice is recorded, transferred to the cloud and stored on a server.

Despite assurances by Mattel, critics wonder what might be done with the information collected. They also fear the doll can be hacked, allowing predators to spy on a child.

The controversy over a fashion doll that has undergone multiple makeovers since the first Barbie catwalked into the marketplace in 1959 makes the latest version ideal for the College’s MakerWeb Consortium to dissect.

This month, the consortium is hosting “Hello Barbie Teardown Sessions,” a series of events to encourage co-curricular Making across campus, with a particular focus on bridging the gaps between the humanities and STEM fields.

The series kicked off Thursday, Feb. 4, with a play session in Wold Atrium. There also will be sessions on taking apart the doll, rebuilding it, redesigning her physical attributes, and brief presentations on a range of topics including gendered play and IoT security.

For a complete schedule of events, click here.

“I could have addressed lots of different Internet of Things toys, but so few have been critically dissected, so it becomes a bridge to connect the humanities with technology,” said Amanda Ervin. She recently joined Union as Makerspace coordinator, a new position at the College.

“I quickly questioned the packaging of such vulnerabilities in a toy so many young girls love. The MakerWeb is the perfect place to have this conversation. We can talk about the issues and then remake the toy in better ways, ultimately empowering people to make their own versions of the toy.”

In addition to the sessions, the MakerWeb is working with Girls Inc. of Schenectady to understand the perceptions young girls bring to the conversation and empower them to build their own version of Hello Barbie.

As Makerspace coordinator, Ervin oversees the MakerWeb Consortium, an interdisciplinary research initiative with its hub based in the Collaborative Design Studio in the Wold Center. The mission is to foster and accelerate novel research by harnessing the power of rapid prototyping design, 3D printing, digital fabrication and hands-on making.

She is confident Hello Barbie will introduce a cross-section of campus to the Makerspace.

“We want students to recognize their place in the designing and making of products that affect their lives so deeply,” Ervin said. “Certainly students who can build Internet of Things networks can contribute, but there is also a place for Gender Studies and many other disciplines. In this case, the relationships become very clear, and disciplines that typically don't work with their hands will see new opportunities to do so.”