Amazon Alexa can now connect to a toy kitchen for preschoolers

Soon, toddlers can ask Alexa for help cooking in their very own toy kitchen, just like mommy or daddy. The Alexa 2-in-1 Kitchen and Market, from toymaker KidKraft, weaves in the Amazon voice assistant into an interactive pretend kitchen and grocery store.

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Making its debut at this weekend’s New York Toy Fair, the $300 deluxe wooden play set is expected to go on sale at Amazon.com later this year, and includes 100 play pieces that prompt various reactions from Alexa. Not included: Alexa itself, which would come from their parents’ Echo smart speaker, designed to sit at the center of the play set. (To see it in action, watch the promotional video embedded below.)

Amazon’s been on a mission to prove its products are family friendly, and that includes getting Alexa into the toy box. The company has been in private beta with various developers to make games and smart toys that work with Alexa. We’ve seen games use Alexa as a timer and score keeper, but KidKraft’s creation is at a whole new level: It uses a mix of RFID sensors and Bluetooth to tell Alexa which pretend food items kids are buying and cooking.

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How it works

KidKraft is an established toy company in the preschool pretend-play space, selling chic wooden kitchens that touch on modern trends. So it’s not far-fetched for one of its play sets to include the latest tech when today’s 3-year-olds already talk to their parents’ Alexa device. The twist here is that KidKraft created a program that works in the Amazon Alexa world, one that helps kids learn about cooking meals and shopping as they play.

The fun begins when a parent opens up their Amazon app and adds a new functionality to Alexa — in this case, a program made by KidKraft, also known as an Alexa “skill.” Then the parent or child can ask Alexa to start the KidKraft program on a smart speaker, such as the Echo. They can then use Alexa with the kitchen and market set.

There’s no need for kids to keep uttering the hotword “Alexa” to get the assistant to react while they play. In fact, the mic isn’t always active. The voice assistant is designed to only talk or ask questions based on how kids play with the accessories.

The 100 play pieces that come with the kitchen and market, which include fake food and cookware, are fitted with RFID chips, and sensors can tell which items are at the register or on the stovetop. The play set then relays that info to the smart speaker via Bluetooth.

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So if a kid places lettuce on the market scanner, it will prompt Alexa to say, “Lettuce! Are we making a salad?” And if a kid says, “Yes,” Alexa will say, “Great! I love salad. Maybe get some avocado, too.”

KidKraft says the program features more than 700 different voice commands and responses in total, chiming in with prompts for a recipe, a shopping list of ingredients or to start up a game.

If a child places the pot on the stove, Alexa may say, “Now that the water is boiling, can you open up the fridge and grab some vegetables?”

The play set is also programmed with several games Alexa can play. For example, the “Secret Ingredient Game” challenges kids to guess which food Alexa is thinking of based on clues. Then kids have to scan the right item at the check-out counter.

If a parent doesn’t want to hand over their Echo for playtime, the kitchen and market will still make some sound effects, such as cash register beeps and boiling water on the stove top. Kids just won’t get the Alexa interactions.

It’s unusual to put Alexa at the center of a toy, but industry analyst Juli Lennet, a vice president at The NPD Group, says it’s a more interesting blend of tech than she’s seen before.

“It’s different and I always like things that have a classic play pattern but have a twist, and this definitely is that.”

Toy industry insiders  interviewed have said they are seeing a decline in toys tied to technology, as parents are looking to limit screen time for kids hooked on video games, phones and tablets. But the KidKraft recipe may be a way to reverse that trend. It merges today’s tech into physical play, but with just a voice instead of a screen.

And yet, the audience for this play kitchen is limited. An Adobe study estimates 36% of consumers own a smart speaker. That said, Amazon is dominating the category and growing. Amazon recently said Alexa smart home engagement has nearly doubled year over year, with Alexa on 100 million devices.

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Stirring the pot of privacy worries

When it comes to kids using voice assistants, Amazon has faced plenty of criticism, questions and concerns over data collection and how kids should be interacting with the technology. Last year, children’s advocates called upon the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the Echo Dot Kids Edition — a candy-colored version of the smart speaker with parental controls — for collecting sensitive data on children that parents couldn’t delete. Amazon is also facing two lawsuits that claim the Amazon’s smart speakers recorded kids without their consent.

To address concerns, Amazon requires Alexa programs for kids — including this one made by KidKraft — to follow stricter content guidelines. Programs for kids can’t include any advertising, sell anything, collect any personal information or include content that is not suitable for all ages.

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Amazon’s Director of Alexa Gadgets, Kyle Laughlin, said in an email to CNET that the company takes the concerns seriously, and parents have to be the ones to approve of downloading such a program in the first place.

“We believe voice will be a big part of the future,” Laughlin said. “Technology — in general — is not a replacement for parenting, but we think child-directed products and skills can provide a fun, interactive, and educational experience.”

If you have questions about how the kitchen works, sound off in the comments. I’ll be checking out the Alexa 2-in-1 Kitchen and Market myself at the Toy Fair when it opens Saturday and updating this story with my first impressions.

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