POPTech: Caleb Chung – Furby Inventor
October 21, 2007
Caleb Chung – toy inventor – isn’t just a modern day Gepetto as his POPTech bio describes. After a few minutes of being on stage, it’s clear that he also channels his inner Tom Hanks character from the movie, “Big.” He’s a playful man-boy in an adult body – inventing toys, and clearly a genius at that.
He took the POPTech stage and immediately brought a laugh to the audience by making reference to his unusual name: he confides that he’s half Chinese and half German, meaning that about an hour after eating, he gets hungry for power 🙂
I always love these kinds of sessions at POPTech. First, we have the quirky genius persona. The last time we may have seen this was when Richard Alley spoke on the Greenland ice-core project 2 years ago. Secondly, the subject matter is about tech and design (hey-cool! – not just the POP). It’s less about global warming, the ravaging diseases in the Third-world, or the destruction of the rain forests and oceans. I feel less overwhelmed with planetary problems for a moment while listening to Caleb. Just for a moment, we step away from “the-planet-is-doomed” topics, and get to think about – TOYS. It makes me want to play, and not kill myself. (Kidding…)
What’s so invigorating about this session is seeing and hearing from the inventor himself about what it’s like inside the creative process. We witness the sheer talent involved with this, as well as the engineering discipline and drive that it takes to bring a huge hit into existence, from scratch. People like Daniel Pink and Richard Florida have said that the Creative Economy is the true successor to the Agricultural, Industrial, and the Information economies. There is a phrase, “the future belongs to those who can create new things.” Caleb Chung is this personified, and he is showing us how, by first sharing the story of how Furby was bought to life, and then the insider’s view of how he invented Pleo, a life-like baby dinosaur about to hit the shelves this Christmas. Take a look:
But let me tell you why I think Caleb Chung is a man to be listened to carefully. For most of the session, the audience experiences pure entertainment. He tells jokes, brings out his inner man-boy when demonstrating prototypes, gives us a sneak peek inside his lab/design studio/garage, and shares wonderful family images of him as dad with his children.
But at one point in the presentation, he gets pretty serious – it occurs when he talks about why he is so passionate about his life’s work. He says that the raising of children has a crucial element – enabling them to experience the emotion of EMPATHY. He says that empathy is vital to the development of a child, and that giving them something to experience feelings of compassion and nurturing is what his toys are all about. (Not everyone can buy a real animal for a pet, or an unusual life-form like a Furby, so a proxy-droid is the next best thing. Plus you don’t have to clean up after it poops on your rug.)
This is a key theme that I’m not sure people caught as I looked around the audience after he said it. I believe empathy is an emotion that all of history’s prophetic figures – religious or otherwise have told us about. Would you hurt, injure (or heaven forbid) kill another (i.e. think Ten Commandments) if you had empathy for their life? Does empathy enable us to transfigure our life’s grief and life tragedy, into compassion for others, as Buddhist teachings suggest? Isn’t empathy the ability to see your own humanity and pain in the life of another human? (“Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone…”) Is empathy a part of saving lives – animal and human – when we see disease and environmental destruction in the world? Is empathy a crucial part to being a “spiritual soul undergoing a human experience?” Is empathy an aspect of experiencing love?
I think these are some of the big questions in life, and I am appreciative that Caleb Chung gave us the opportunity to consider them, all in the context of making toys for children (and some of us adults). Who would have thunk?