The year was 1998. President Bill Clinton was busy getting in trouble for not keeping his pants up. Microsoft was getting involved in its first major lawsuit with the U.S. And somewhere in New York City, at that year's Toy Fair, the world would get its first glimpse of what would be grabbing headlines in only a few months:
Furby. Designed and developed by Dave Hampton and Caleb Chung, Furbies were designed to do one thing in particular: get people's attention and sell like hotcakes. Toy companies certainly like toys that do that, so many were very interested upon seeing Furby, including Tiger Electronics, who ended up producing the little fellow with support from new parent company Hasbro, who had just announced they were buying them a few days prior.
It wasn't the first electronic pet, nor at the time of it's initial announcement, even the most popular, a title that belonged to Bandai's Tamagotchi. In fact, according to a Time article, Tamagotchi's 1997 Toy Fair appearance is what inspired Dave Hampton to come up with Furby in the first place.
Sure, there were other toys out there at the time, including a few that were waiting in the wings like Sony's super-expensive AIBO, a electronic dog. But with a US$35 price point, Furby was cheap. While the AIBO and its US$1500-2500 price point was the equivalent of a modern supercar like a Nissan GT-R or a Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1, Furby was the equivalent of a Volkswagen Beetle: something for everyone. Except, well, the Furby can never really be as cool as the Beetle ever was.
The first line of Furbys were 6" tall and came in six different colors, with four different eye options. They were also ... rather odd looking. The beak of a bird, the ears of a cat, all that fur and those big eyes made them look like something that escaped from the laboratory of Dr. Moreau.
For their time, Furbys were actualy surprisingly sophisticated. Using a light sensitive cell and infrared sensors, they could determine between light and dark and would respond accordngly, sleeping in darkness and being awake in the light. The sensors also let them communicate via infrared data transmissions, which is how they "magically" made Furbys interact with each other. The Furby's internal chips allowed for them to be programmed with multiple capabilities, including the ability to interpret and react to sounds they picked up via a hidden microphone.So of course, the fur bodies made sense, as they actually allowed all of the technology to be hidden from view.
And then there was the language, which you needed a dictionary to even understand: Furbish. It was exactly like Elvish ... except without the elves. Or anything that really made it cool. Eventually, over time, they would learn English from their owners, but until you put forth the effort to actually try and "teach" them anything, they simply kept blabbing on. And God help you if you lost the little dictionary they came with, as this was before everyone had the Internet to go use to reference these things.
Even the NSA was afraid of them. Of course, turns out those fears were pretty overstated since Furbys could only learn from a pre-programed number of English phrases, and I doubt "covert operations in Iran" was in their vocabulary.
Still, when the holiday season came around, everyone wanted a Furby, with many, many people frustrated about not being able to get one. Heck, there were even two guys in Minneapolis who ran around the city fighting each other to get the last one and they both ended up in this parade dressed in character and ... wait, that's the plot to Jingle All The Way. Sorry.
Silly joke aside, the scene from Jingle All The Way in which Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sinbad end up fighting in the store with everyone else to get the last of the Turboman figures pretty much sums up how the Furby craze was handled during the 1998 holiday season, except with fewer comedic gags and more serious arguing and fisticuffs. Part of the problem came from the media pushing stories about Furbys being the "it" item for 1998's holiday season, sending people panicking to toy stores to look for Furbys months ahead of the expected rush. They didn't find any, which led to a self-fulfilling prophecy and scared parents looking everywhere for Furbys that hadn't even shipped from Tiger and Hasbro's factories yet.
Once the idea was already out there about Furbys being something every child "must have," chaos ensued. That's where the fights and near stampedes came from. In fact, many parents who didn't buy their kids Furbys got police-escorted visits from child services.*
Of course, all wasn't peachy with Furby. The main complaint about them wasn't their looks, but that they were annoying little things that would never shut up if you didn't keep them hidden in a closet or remove the batteries. You see, the designers had left out one important detail: Furby had no on/off switch. That meant you had to either trick it to go to sleep or remove the batteries. Or if you hated it enough, destroy the critter.
What made it worse on top of all that was Furby needed to be fed on a pretty regular basis, and if you neglected to do so, it wouldn't do anything until you did. Literally. And if it got sick because you didn't feed him, you had to work overtime just to get it back to normal, so it could annoy you with it's rendition of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" in Furbish or tell you some stupid story that made no sense.
Furbys were more than just a holiday toy craze, though, selling well into the following year and beyond. Even McDonalds made Furby toys, though for Furby fans, it probably saddened them that they were cheap plastic pieces and nothing more.
After a while, Furby fever died down and Tiger Electronics was essentially folded into Hasbro entirely. Hasbro went on to create FurReal Friends based off the early Furby technology, this time modeling them after real-life animals and thus making somewhat less annoying because they didn't sit there talking all day. The line was successful, but not to the extent Furby was. And so, Hasbro decided to bring them back, but not quite as people remembered them:
Basically, the new Furbys featured more emotions than their predecessors, but they also looked like someone had force fed a Furby until it was morbidly obese. Oh, the horror. The horror ...
Sometime in 2007, Furby finally met its end, having been reduced to an afterthought in today's toy world. Today, they're mainly confined to the realm of Furby fans and modders who can make Furby do crazy things. Do I personally miss Furby, though? No, not really. For as much as some people love it, I've never been a Furby fan, and through no fault of its own, Furby made toys as holiday fads a much, much bigger part of our culture every fall and winter. But I guess it could be much worse than that. After all, one day in the future, we could find out that stupid little furball lead to something bad. Of course, maybe I'm just overracting —
Ohhhhhhhhhhh crap.*No, not really. No children were taken away because they didn't get a Furby. I think.
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Brian Szabelski is Tomopop's Editor-in-Chief, stuck with an ever-growing collection of figures and toys. When he's not posting on Tomopop, he can usually be found working on any number of project... full profile | More staff profiles
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