This holiday season, a $14.99 toy hardly bigger than your finger put parents in a frenzy.
Fingerlings — toy monkeys, unicorns and sloths that cling to your fingers and react to touch and sound by blinking and blowing kisses — were highly sought after to have wrapped as a present for kids.
At Toys R Us, Fingerlings sold out online and "essentially evaporate from our shelves," a spokesperson tells CNBC Make It, with "customers lined up outside our stores in the wee early morning hours hoping to get their hands on one." The toys were also a best-seller on Amazon, and on eBay, one Fingerling was being bought every minute the week ending Nov. 1, the company tells CNBC.
But the truth is, though the small toys are literally child's play, Fingerlings are also sophisticated mini robots.
When you touch them, Fingerlings have over 40 different sounds and animations, including singing, and they do things like blink and burp. If you're holding the Fingerling upside down, it reacts to touch differently than if it were right side up.
"Try cradling your entire Fingerling's head with your hand for a couple of seconds," to make it, well, fart, suggests a video by WowWee, the Canadian 80-person robotics company that created the toy. To put the monkey to sleep, rock it gently in a horizontal position.
Clapping twice will get Fingerlings to sing, and if you have multiple toys, they'll sing together. If left alone for more than 60 seconds, the monkey will doze to conserve energy.
Months and months of work were required to turn the complex toys into a reality.
"Our days are spent literally surfing online seeing things that we look at that have that viral potential," Wiseman tells CNBC Make It.
The central idea to the strategy is that things that are attracting buzz online are likely to catch on with consumers.
"When things get shared all the time ... that means there is something there that resonates with a larger audience. So we're always looking for those types of things that we can really play on — no pun intended," she explains.
About 18 months ago, Wiseman came across such a thing — a photo of a tiny, furry monkey hanging onto someone's finger, which was circulating on Facebook.
It set her imagination to work. She began to think, "What would that mean if we turned it into something for a child?"
She turned to her co-workers and asked, "Look at this! Is this a toy?
"Everyone is looking, 'Yeah this is a toy! This is a toy!'" she says.
Wiseman sent her idea to Benny Dongarra, the lead art director behind Fingerlings. He spent "hours, sometimes days," drawing iterations of what the toy would look like, Wiseman says, adding that he would often take work home.
There was a lot to consider. Should the toys be true-to-life in shades of brown and black, or bright and bold?
And "the fur of the monkey was crucial," says Davin Sufer, the chief technology officer of WowWee. "Should it be a tuft at the top? Is it a Mohawk? How large or small?" he says they asked.
Months were spent on engineering, working to fit sophisticated technology into a toy the size of a child's hand at a price point parents could afford.
"Just the touch interaction for example, that is very similar to the touch interface you have in your smart phone," Sufer says. "The idea of being able to touch a screen and hit a button, [it's] similar technology to activate touch in our Fingerlings."
Fingerlings also have a microphone to sense sound, paired with software that filters out background noise, so they know to react to signals like clapping or the blowing of a kiss.
They have one motion sensor that knows when you're rocking or shaking the Fingerling, and another can tell the Fingerling's orientation to put it to sleep. Still different mechanics make the eyes move.
The team paid attention to every detail. For example, they gave the sloth Fingerling, an exclusive product for Walmart, a slower motor in its head and slower sound effects to make him seem more lazy.
The software, designs, circuits and animations for Fingerlings are all proprietary to WowWee, Sufer says, and were built from scratch for the toy.
And at an affordable price point. "We worked hard to hit the $14.99," Sufer says. (According to The New York Times, the toy was originally intended to be sold for $20, but Walmart — known for price cutting— negotiated the price lower.)
"From start to finish, it probably took almost nine to 12 months," Sufer says.
All the work paid off. Fingerlings finally launched in the spring of 2017 in the UK and Canada, and were met with a welcome reception by consumers. Then came the launch in the finicky U.S. market on Aug. 11, on what WowWee calls "Fingerlings Friday."
"Our first week ... it was crazy," she says. "That first Friday through the whole next week was like 'Whoa! Okay, this is something we never thought would be this ginormous.'"
WowWee hired online influencers to smash open banana pinatas filled with Fingerlings and called it an "unbashing" instead of an "unboxing," Wiseman explains, referring to the hugely popular trend of YouTube celebrities revealing new toys through videos.
"We don't go [with] the typical dog or bunny or mouse. We really wanted to think more aspiration, and what's really trending," she explains. "Back to the whole viral video thing. What videos go viral online probably make for a really cute Fingerlings character."
New colors and varieties of the exclusive toys were released in late December for Toys R Us and Walmart, Money reports.
Because of the demand, WowWee had to start shipping the toys by plane because container ships were too slow, according to The Times, and the company even added a third Chinese production factory this fall.
But with such huge success came problems.
In October, WowWee filed a federal lawsuit against 165 sellers of counterfeit Fingerlings. In November, a judge granted a temporary restraining order to freeze the counterfeiters' assets and storefronts. (WowWee has created how-to guides for finding authorized retailers, and says product from third-party retailers operating on platforms like Amazon and Walmart isn't guaranteed to be authentic.)
Third party-sellers on eBay and Amazon have been charging three to four times the item's original price, The New York Times reports, perhaps thanks to online shopping bots, software that buys up new product as it is relisted, to then be sold for more.
Still, Wiseman keeps her eye the prize: "Christmas morning I just want to see all the positive reviews and kids happy with their Fingerlings."
This is an updated version of a previously published article.
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