THIS IS weird. A little friend and I are watching a children's videotape starring Barney, the purple dinosaur.
No, that is not the weird part. Nor is the fact that my friend laughs at the appropriate places, sings along, tilts his head to and fro, waves his arms, makes random comments such as "He said 'Please!' " and generally behaves like an uninhibited 3-year-old. The weird part is that my friend is actually a plush, animated Barney doll a bit over a foot tall.
The idea of a robotic couch-potato buddy might be old hat in dystopian novels, but it is utterly new in the real world. It reaches the height of strangeness at the end of the tape, when my polite purple pal says, "Thank you for watching TV with me!" Hearing your own private Barney comment on the antics of the public Barney on the screen takes television to a new level of self-reference unlikely to be topped until you can bring home "Mystery Science Theater 3000" characters that comment on the commentary on "Mystery Science Theater 3000."
Once you fill his drawers with six AA batteries, Actimates Interactive Barney from the Microsoft Corp. can perform an impressive array of tricks on his own, thanks to the magic of 257 kilobytes of built-in memory. Squeeze either hand, and he wakes up and greets you. Squeeze it again, and he plays one of a dozen games, such as reciting the alphabet. Squeeze his foot, and he sings one of 17 songs, such as the deathless "I Love You."
Cover Barney's eyes, and he plays peekaboo, though he sometimes gets confused by your shadow. Leave your hand over his eyes, and Barney has a mild anxiety attack: "Please let me see you. Let's try something else." Then he tries to charm his way out: "I like playing with you. Squeeze my hand to play a game."
But Interactive Barney is a Trojan horse filled not with soldiers but with sales opportunities. At about $100, Barney radiates charm, but to capture electronic radiation he demands a PC or VCR transmitter; either one, with a single tape or CD-ROM, costs about $60. Then you will be able to use more specially encoded videotapes for about $13 each or CD-ROMs for about $30.
The VCR transmitter plugs into a wall socket and the recorder's "video out" jack and includes a passthrough jack of its own. The tape that comes with it, "Barney's Stu-u-upendous Puzzle Surprise," is a collection of existing TV segments vaguely linked by a tacked-on hunt for on-screen puzzle pieces. The specially encoded tape sends radio signals that animate Barney, provided he is within 15 feet of the transmitter.
Because Barney has no volume control and his warbly voice tends to sound somewhat muffled when he is not facing you, matching the TV's volume and the doll's can be a bit tricky. The TV system offers the child no real interaction, though if Barney's hand or foot gets a squeeze while an encoded program is playing, he makes an encouraging remark. Daily PBS broadcasts of "Barney and Friends" are expected to include the codes that animate the doll beginning in November.
The separate PC transmitter plugs into a joystick port and includes a passthrough connector. Also included is Windows 95 CD-ROM software called "Fun on Imagination Island," which, after the usual installation hassles, delivers shape, letter and color recognition games and alphabet and word drills, often with characters from the TV shows.
The program lets plush Barney remark on the action on the screen, sing along, offer hints, gush about the child's prowess and even play along when the toddler squeezes his hand. The effect is often delightful, particularly when you put your hand over Barney's eyes and on-screen characters play peekaboo, too.
My informal torture tests failed to break the beast, but as youth finds a way, the company offers a 30-day, money-back guarantee and a 90-day limited warranty. If you find yourself on an airplane next to a babbling Barney, complain politely. The manual says Barney's batteries should be removed "before boarding any aircraft" because he radiates radio-frequency energy that might play hob with navigation.
Despite its shortcomings, this first step into the brave new world of robot buddies is charming and successful enough that it is likely to be the Tickle Me Elmo of this Christmas season.
Pub Date: 9/01/97