Entrepreneurs from around the world travel to the Bay Area to build their businesses, raising funding, networking and testing ideas in a startup-rich environment. Tokyo-based inventor Naoki Ono set up residence in Mountain View last year to redevelop a children’s product his company had already launched in Tokyo to some success.
Ono created Chappet, a bright-yellow button that attaches to stuffed animals or dolls and helps them “speak,” spontaneously, via a smartphone app.
“The best thing about being in the U.S. was that I was able to see with my own eyes how American children react when their stuffed toys talk to them through Chappet,” he said.
Responses were less reserved than in his own country, Ono found, and those ebullient reactions increased his confidence that the product could translate to the American market.
“They initially look very surprised and happy, and then start singing with the stuffed toys or enjoy listening to stories,” he said. “I created Chappet to make children happy, and that’s what matters the most to me. So, I was relieved to see the positive reactions of the children here.”
Chappet functions as a Bluetooth-enabled speaker, allowing a parent or other participant to bring a toy to life. The idea took off fairly naturally in Japan, Ono noted.
“Japanese people tend to believe in animism – that souls are in things, in objects – so since that is our custom and belief, we tend to believe that it is possible for a stuffed toy to talk,” he said.
In the U.S., initial response from adult respondents included more concern about whether this was, at its core, a creepy idea. Although Ono thought that Asian-Americans might share a natural affinity for the idea, he also shot promotional video emphasizing the connection that children of all backgrounds can experience with the device.
“When I tried mainly children on Chappet, they liked it – they were surprised and loved their stuffed toy more. That is what I wanted to (inspire),” he said. “After their parents saw the situation, they started to like Chappet. What I thought was, it is important to show parents how kids react to Chappet.”
Although the underlying hardware is essentially identical to the button’s Japanese version, Ono and his team surveyed local consumers to select new versions of 20 songs and 20 stories to pre-load on the app, as well as tweaking the package design and adding detailed information explicitly planning for a more litigious American retail market.
“For the English version of the app, we created phrases in American English from scratch. We made it a point not to simply translate Japanese phrases because we wanted everything to sound natural and have the right cultural context,” he said. “For example, the English version of the app has many Christmas- and Halloween-related phrases, whereas the Japanese version includes many phrases that have to do with New Year.”
Users sew on the button or attach it with a loop of string. The USB-charged device uses Bluetooth to connect to a smartphone app that can play pre-loaded audio, personalized recordings or switch to an interactive “mimic and chat” setting that echoes audio back to a child. Parents can manipulate the pitch of their recordings to create a special “voice” for the button’s bearer.
Ono developed the idea for the product when he visited with a young niece who didn’t know him very well.
“She was so shy that she didn’t talk with me,” he recalled, noting that her shyness dissolved after he started using her soft toys to communicate with her. “Mothers and fathers tend to use puppets to play with their children. What I wanted to do is to make it kind of an update, with a whole new device.”
Ono released the product in the U.S. last month, after six months of development in Mountain View, and in Japan 12 months before that.
“I loved Mountain View because the weather is so nice,” he said. “I changed my character – went more optimistic than I was in Japan.”
His parent company, Hakuhodo, a Japanese advertising firm, has a relationship with the Palo Alto- based Ideo, which offered a home base for Ono during his time in the area. When he isn’t designing products, he works as a copywriter for the advertising agency. That background influenced his nomenclature for the new device, whose name nods toward a chatty puppet – a Chappet.
“After I made it a prototype, I tried it with her and she liked it, (and found it) surprising,” he said of his earliest beta tester, his niece.
After a few weeks of observing the device in action, she drew a picture of a princess on cardboard backing and asked her mother to bring the princess to life using Chappet, a personalization of the button that Ono found intriguingly creative.
“After launching in Japan, we got many responses from the users, and some of them said that Chappet can be used for the terrible twos,” he said. “They use it to make their child brush their teeth, or go to the bathroom. That was pretty interesting to us, so we decided to add phrases useful for these situations.”
Ono doesn’t think the devices replace direct communication between a parent and child, but instead offer a surprising and happy diversion for select situations.
“Of course I think talking to your children, or your niece or nephew, is very important – but for children, talking with their favorite stuffed toy is kind of a dream, and magic,” he said. “It is sometimes necessary for a child to talk to someone other than their mother – so using a stuffed toy as a third person is sometimes useful.”
American consumers can currently buy Chappets through Amazon, but Ono is courting retailers to find his product space on brick-and-mortar shelves.
For more information, visit chappet.com.