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Please let me introduce to you, my daughter's new friend - Chatman. He is essentially an artificially intelligent buddy, who helps to make my 8 year olds online sessions more creative, fun and above all, safe.
~~~What is Chatman?~~~
Once you take Chatman out of it's impossible to open packaging, no mean feat I can tell you, you are greeted with a wonderfully charming, three dimensional smiley emoticon. The body is made of a hard plastic, and is really substantial. It definitely wouldn't break easily. There is quite a long lead from the body which connects it via the computer, you would obviously need to keep this away from younger children, but it wouldn't be a problem for the age range that this toy is intended for.
Installation onto your computer is simplicity itself, so easy that a child could do it. You simply run the supplied software disk, and plug Chatman into a USB port. After doing this, Chatman comes to life.
~~~Who is Chatman?~~~
You are immediately told a story, about how Chatman came about, it's quite funny, but I won't tell you and spoil the surprise. The story also gives the child more information about what you can do, in a friendly manner which is easily understood. This is the time, where you can choose one of three pre-loaded names, two are boy's names - Zeke and Meeko, and Ginger is a girl. According to what name you choose, your Chatman will have a matching personality.
My daughter chose to have hers as Ginger. The personality is so real, you actually feel like she's alive. She expresses herself so animatedly, her arms flail up and down, and her antennae's move as she speaks (sometimes giving you quite a surprise when all is quiet and she suddenly starts to speak).
~~~Communication and animation~~~
Ginger (and so too, Zeke and Meeko) have 750 pre-loaded sentences, and expressions giving them a real personality. What's great is that this is expandable, and you can download more online. Chatman talks, and the sounds come from the speaker built into the body, but he can also communicate with the written word.
There are 25 pre-loaded moods to make it more lifelike, happy, sad, excited, even angry and tired. My daughter's favourite is the one where the Chatman is craaaazy. These enable the child to match the Chatman with how they are feeling too. If they are sad, Chatman will be sad, and they can comfort each other. This truly is a friend who will understand your emotions and feel the same.
Just a word of warning - Ginger is obviously programmed as a teenager, as when the subject comes around to boys, my daughter can't really relate to what she is programmed to say, but still thinks Ginger is hysterically funny, which she is. There are so many other subjects that they are on an equal footing though, so the one doesn't bother me too much.
The facial expressions formed by little LED's behind the mouth area, which shine though the plastic body, are almost as funny as the words she is expressing.
There is no substitute for parental guidance while kids are using the internet, but as the internet has become widely used for my daughter's homework of late, and I can't be in the room every single second, Chatman is a fantastic alternative over having no supervision whatsoever, and a wonderful friend too.
This gadget works in conjunction with Facebook, MSN, Gmail and more apparently, but my daughter only goes on Facebook occasionally, so I can't comment on the other sites. As she chats to her friends, chatman interacts and joins in the conversation where appropriate. Imagine if you will, this conversation - Girl one- 'Shall we go to the cinema on Saturday?' Girl two -'Sure, what time shall we meet up?' Chatman - 'Great, can I come too?'
Chatman quietly and inconspicuously monitors the chat, for any inappropriate or dangerous words, and will alert you and your child, by moving its antennae, flailing its arms and shouting 'WARNING!'. This will also happen when potentially harmful web links are pasted into the browser or posted in the chat while the unit is plugged into the computer, irrespective of what site you are on. This in itself, is the whole reason for my purchasing the item, the other benefits are secondary.
~~~What else does it do?~~~
So what else can it do? You can record your own words and phrases and have Chatman say them too - in my daughter's very own words - 'that is so cool!!!' Both the Chatman site, www.mychatman.com, and the toy itself, offer a wide variety of both fun and educational activities. These include, Fun stuff, where you play games and read jokes. Funny stuff, where you download new personalities of TV characters and movie stars, and a section called Smarty Pants, which allows children to ask questions, or find information and pictures relating to homework and areas of interest to them, via the web.
The cost of this varies, from anything from ¬£24.01 to ¬£29.99 on Amazon at the moment, but I first saw this, and purchased it from, Marks and Spencer's at a cost of ¬£39.99. I do think it's expensive for a 'toy' but what price can you put on internet safety for your children? You can't, it's priceless, and so for piece of mind only, this is worth every penny.
As to suitability, this is a great little gadget and my daughter adores it, she's aged eight, and it would be suitable for a seven year old but not any younger. The main reason being, they lack the reading/typing skills to communicate with the written word adequately.
In my opinion, hopefully, your child will have a good sense of judgement and enough knowledge about online safety by the time they are ten or eleven, to not have to use this. Indeed they may have outgrown their Chatman friend well before then anyway.
A good toy that is so much more than a novelty, it's a chaperone for your kids when they spend time online unsupervised by adults.