At the risk of dating myself, I will tell you that grew up in the 80s — that decade of excess that was half drab and half brightly colored, depending on where you looked, and how much money you had for stuff like Memphis design. Technology seemed to move quickly in almost every aspect of life as the people of the Me decade demanded convenience, variety, and style in everything from their toilet paper (remember the colors?) to their telephones. Even though long distance cost a fortune back then, we were encouraged to ‘reach out and touch someone’.
A Healthy Fear of Bears
Looking back, it’s easy to see how all that advanced technology and excess filtered down to children. I may be biased, but the 80s were a pretty awesome time for toys, and for children’s entertainment in general. Not only were the toys mostly still well-made, even those that came in quarter machines — many of them were technologically amazing.
Take Teddy Ruxpin, which debuted in 1985. Teddy was the world’s first animatronic children’s toy, a bear that would read stories aloud from special cassette tapes, which moved his eyes and mouth along with the words. One track contained the audio, and the other controlled three servos in his face.
I remember watching the commercials and imagining Teddy suddenly switching from some boring bedtime story over to a rockin’ musical number a là the animatronic Rock-afire Explosion band at ShowBiz Pizza (a Chuck E. Cheese competitor). That’s the kind of night I wanted to be having.
Although I went to ShowBiz a fair number of times to play Skee-Ball and stare at the Rock-afire Explosion animals and their cool set pieces, I never did have a Teddy Ruxpin. I remember being torn between wanting one and thinking they were kind of scary, which in turn made me a bit tangentially afraid of the Snuggle bear. When it came down to it, Teddy simply cost too much — $69.99 for the bear alone, and another $20 for a single cassette with storybook. And that’s 1985 dollars — according to my favorite inflation calculator, that’s $250 in today’s money for a talking bear and one lousy story.
Which brings us to KC Bearifone, an animatronic teddy bear telephone. Honestly, part of the reason I bought the Bearifone was some sort of false nostalgia for Teddy. The main reason is that I wanted to own a Teleconcepts unit of some kind, and this one seemed like the most fun to mess around with. A robot teddy bear that only does speakerphone? Yes, please.
When You Can’t Be There, Be a Bear
If there’s another thing the 80s were known for, it’s latchkey children. Both of my parents worked, so after a respectable number of years in before-and-after-school daycare facilities, I walked home from the bus stop and let myself in every afternoon. Although my Dad was never gone on business trips or anything, he did work a lot of double shifts and often came home late at night, long after I’d gone to bed.
Plenty of kids’ fathers did travel for business, and that’s what KC Bearifone seems to be built for — calls from Dad’s hotel room right before bedtime, so he can say good night and maybe read you a story.
Whereas Teddy tells proprietary stories in some stranger’s gentle voice, KC Bearifone sounds like Dad, because that’s exactly what you’d be hearing — Dad’s voice. The difference is that theoretically, any discernible audio of human speech will animate KC Bearifone’s eyes and mouth. Weekly check-in with Grandma? KC Bearifone becomes a sweet old lady. Conference call with Munich? KC Bearifone spricht Deutsch.
So why did KC Bearifone even exist? Presumably to entertain people, especially children. And quite possibly to capitalize on the animatronic bear craze that Teddy Ruxpin started. But can you imagine seeing every caller’s voice come through a talking teddy bear? Talk about wild, and disarming to boot. If you’re a nervous phone user, this concept is orders of magnitude better than picturing the caller in their underwear for the sake of your confidence.
Bear Down for the Teardown
At first, I thought I wouldn’t be able to get too far into this teardown, because I thought there was only the one zipper that runs up KC’s back. But then I found a hidden zipper in the back of his head that let me into the goods. You can see how much more difficult it would be to tell which wire does what without access to the head.
Now that I’ve found that head zipper, I can get pretty much anywhere. What you see here is the extent to which I can pull back the fur on his head, which is glued down around the eyeballs.
The zip tie around his neck runs through a casing in the collar of his fursuit and is used to cinch it closed and keep kids from seeing KC’s internal horrors. If I wanted to get in to see the control board, I was probably going to have to snip it, so snip it I did.
At this point, I decided to see if it would even power on. To my surprise, we had four D cells lying around the house, all with at least 1.5 V in each of them. What we don’t have is a landline, so I can’t test it that way, but the light above the power switch comes on, so it seems worth the effort to investigate further.
End of the Teddy Bear Picnic
Well, it seems I snipped that 35-year-old zip tie for nothing, and now I have to thread a new one through the casing. Oh well, it shouldn’t be that hard; I’ve threaded my share of limp elastic through fabric casings up to this point, so it should go pretty quickly.
I thought I would have to undo every screw from the base of the neck up in order to get the cover off of the main box, but then I realized that the head post is slotted in to the top of the body. Unfortunately, the head won’t stay upright and backward by itself. That’s probably a good thing.
But here’s the bad part — there are two screws at the bottom of the compartment that are super hard to get to. I could probably get to them with a flex-head screwdriver. As I was pulling on the back of the box and thinking, I realized that there’s no way I’m getting it open without amputating the keypad from KC’s abdomen, or skinning him completely. And I don’t want to go there.
Bear In Mind, This Isn’t Over
I still want to take over the input and do something cool with it. I’m thinking it would be perfect for listening to the Hackaday Podcast. So far, I haven’t had time to started hacking on KC Bearifone, but this project has some interesting information, including a page about building your own ‘transmogrifier unit’ if you can’t locate the commercial unit inside that makes the voice signals manipulate KC’s features.
And as far as Teddy Ruxpin goes, I’ve got a semi-working unit on the way, so maybe we’ll have an actual talking bear showdown one of these days. Is the world ready for that?