David Hampton knows what he would have done if his parents had presented hirn with a Furby on his ninth birthday. "One, I'd take the fur off," said Hampton, now 47, who invented the 5-inch gremlin in his California home last year but who was willing, for the sake of a telephone interview, to transport himself to the basement of his boyhood home near Detroit. aTwo, I'd open up the case, the shell," he continued. Three, look at everything as it's working that way I can see how everything is tied together. Four, I would start disassembling the circuit board.
"And, if I really succeeded," he said, "I would put it all back together and it would still work."
For those who have never had the pleasure of elbowing through Toys R us in fruitless pursuit, the Furby is this season's "hit" toy: a cuddlysome would say cloying mechanized ball of synthetic hair that is part penguin, part owl and part kitten. Furby has a synthesized 200-word vocabulary in a language called Furbish and the ability to squeal if the lights go out, snore and even sneeze. If the Pet Rock and Tickle Me Elmo had mated, in a union sealed with a Mood Ring, they would have given birth to a Furby.
In fact, he or shethe sex of the Furby is at the owner's discretioncame from the imagination of Hampton, a perpetual inventor of toys and medical products who lives with his wife and two young sons in a home without electricity in the Tahoe National Forest. He won't name the nearest town, which is 25 miles away, because he says he is afraid of frantic parents' beating on his door demanding the plush companions, which have been flying off store shelves and now fetch 10 times their suggested $30 retail price on the Internet.
Hampton pleads not guilty to stoking the marketing juggernaut that has engulfed the Furby, which has been presided over by the company to which he licensed the toy last year, Tiger Electronics of Vernon Hills, Ill. And even though the estimated 2 million units sold have probably made him millions (he won't say), his naivete is convincing. This, after all, is someone whose earliest idea of a toy was a toaster waiting to be taken apart. Before he reached puberty, he says, the basement of his family's whitebrick home in Roseville, Mich., was littered with nearly a dozen broken radios belonging to neighborswhich he fixed, for a few dollars, sometimes at 4 a.m.
When he was 13, he began working in a little television repair shop. Not long after that, he resurrected a World War II radar system (which wound up jamming the local police frequency) and built a ham radio. "I had a neighbor call and say, 'Are you WA8-JAD?' " he recalls. "My voice was coming out all over the neighborhood telephones. "My brothers were playing with more traditional toys," he says. "Me, I would much rather have a tube checker." Having read in PopularElectronicsthat "the best electronics school was the Navy," Hampton enlisted soon after graduating from high school in 1970. He chose aviation electronics as his specialty. During his eight years in the service, he traveled the world, learning Japanese, Thai, Chinese and Hebrew. His training led to jobs in Silicon Valley, including one designing the video game Q-Bert and another in product development for Mattel. In the early 1990s, he formed his own design and consulting company, Sounds Amazing, and it was in that capacity that he traveled to New York in February 1997 for the annual Toy Fair trade show. There, he saw the interactive, digital pets known as Tamagotchi. Though they exist on electronic screens no bigger than a watch, the toys require their owners to feed them and clean up after them with the push of a button, or they die.
Hampton saw a fatal flaw: "You can't pet it." So he returned to his home workshop and began writing about his ideal virtual pet, with the working name Furball. "I started a script like, if you rub his back, he'll purr,' Hampton said. He also gave Furby a language, an amalgam of all the languages he had picked up. Thus when Furby says "da," he is using the Mandarin word for "big." When he says, Ray lo," for bight," it is a variation of a Hebrew word for God. Using a crude electronic board not unlike the Heathkits he played with as a boy, Hampton brought Furby's scratchy voice to life. A former colleague from Mattel, Caleb Chung, created the mechanics. By November 1997, Hampton had sold the idea to Tiger Electronics. By February, a crude model was shown at the Toy Fair, tethered to a generator. In September, Wired magazine endorsed Furby as the season's hottest new toy," and the toy industry was on its way to having its next Beanie Baby. In an accolade that only the Internet could bestow, one disgruntled owner has conducted an online autopsy of his Furby (www.phobe.com/furby/), complete with a toe-tagged "crime scene photo."
"Frankly," the self-described scientist wrote, "we find him much more amusing dead than he was alive." Hampton has seen the site. "My first thought was, 'That's what I would have done," he said. "The other side of me said: My baby! They're dissecting my babies!' "
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