This 18" interactive fashion doll first hit the UK a year or so ago through the Vivid Toy Group, arriving here in the U.S. for this Holiday Season via Los Angeles-based Genesis Toys (who sent us our review sample). She's popping up on a ton of "Hot Holiday Toys" lists - and in theory, for good reason. Touted as "The World's First Fully Interactive Doll", Cayla Connor connects via Bluetooth to an available iOS or Android device with the free My Friend Cayla App. She's programmed with a ton of stories, questions and potential responses, and then she can "search the internet for approved sources" to answer additional questions that a child may ask. One problem is that the whole procedure is extremely clunky - and that goes back to the need for an App in the first place.
Spinning back to an App-enabled Tech Toy called Zimmiz that I reviewed back in 2013, this quote is not only still true, but entirely proven:
"Though it might be 30+ years outdated, I can still put fresh batteries in a Teddy Ruxpin and he'll come to life and start telling stories from his archaic cassette tape. Will we be able to say the same about an App Toy even five years from now? I don't think so."
Reliance on the App dooms Cayla's longevity from the start, as even the most successful Apps aren't updated forever. Without the App, her interactive features are useless, and the Bluetooth connectivity carries a ton of issues - some of which could've been handled by making Cayla Wi-Fi enabled in lieu of Bluetooth - securely pairing her for internet access via a home network. Instead, she connects (with no passcode needed) to an available Bluetooth device and works a lot like the Bluetooth speakers we have here at Rock Father HQ. You could even make phone calls through her! And, if you close the App but forget to end/sign out/disconnect your Bluetooth device, it is entirely possible for music to be played through Cayla - as we learned by accident.
Also clunky is that kids can only talk to Cayla when the charm on her necklace glows. While the doll is recommended for ages 4+, it stifles play (even for my 6-year-old) to have to make required pauses to communicate properly with the doll. And, when Cayla is listening - it's quite likely that she'll answer with something completely unrelated. We had a stretch where almost every interaction was met by a lengthy story about a dog on a mountain. That said, Cayla does spin a fine yarn about classic Princesses, and tells a good tale of Cinderella and Snow White.
Interestingly, Cayla may have also been programmed with an "agenda" of sorts - to try steering kids away from certain pop culture mainstays by using "violence" as the reason. I happened to catch Addie and Finn speaking with Cayla about STAR WARS and TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, something I was able to reproduce and catch on video:
"Cayla, do you like STAR WARS?"
Cayla: "I am not interested in space movies with lots of fighting, but Princess Leia is pretty cool. She is as tough as the boys, and smarter (creepy laugh). My dad likes Star Wars a lot, He talks about it all the time. He says it was one of his favorite movies when he was a kid."
"Cayla, do you like TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES?"
Cayla: "I think the Ninja Turtles are okay. Sometimes it's funny, but has too much fighting for me. I think the idea of turtles being people are funny. Did you know each of the characters was named for a famous Renaissance artist? My friend Sam told me. He knows all about them."
"What is your favorite movie, Cayla?"
And that creepy electronic laugh... sounding as if it was pulled from a different recording source than the rest of Cayla's speech. I'm waiting for her to rise up like Chucky from CHILD'S PLAY and try taking me out for penning this review.
Above all, MY FRIEND CAYLA is just a clunky pain-in-the-ass that parents will appreciate avoiding. If you'd like to constantly be asked to help pair Cayla with a device... to start/stop/pause/reset her when she answers with dog stories, tales of shopping with her mom, or simple quips like "yep!" - this is for you. If you'd like to be asked why Cayla is constantly asking kids to repeat themselves... or why she only seems to like the stereotypical things, then absolutely pick this up. Yes, she plays games, too (and beating her at Tic-Tac-Toe is difficult), and she reads stories - but you know who else can do that? Other human beings - kids and grownups alike. The one good note is that she's cute - but there's countless cute dolls out there... ones that don't sound like soulless robots.
At an MSRP of around $60, you'd be better off getting a standard 18" doll that's powered only by imagination. My Friend Cayla is certainly a fine concept, but the clunky, creepy reality suggests that the type of tech it seeks to be just isn't there for a toy in this price range... yet.