The Future Is Furby

Cute-Creepy Encounters with a Zoomorphic Robot

How to Cite

Rose, M. C. (2023). The Future Is Furby: Cute-Creepy Encounters with a Zoomorphic Robot. M/C Journal, 26(2).
Vol. 26 No. 2 (2023): toys
Published 2023-04-25

Fig. 1: “Pink Flamingo Furby” (2000), “Peachy Furby Baby” (1999), and “Owl Furby” (1999)

Sunlight Up (“Dah-ay-loh oo-tye”): Introduction

As playthings at the junction of human experience and imagination, toys like Furby present an interesting touch point to explore cultural imaginations, hopes, and fears about zoomorphic robots and AI toys. This year marks their 25th anniversary. Created by Dave Hampton and Caleb Chung, Furby publicly debuted at the American International Toy Fair in 1998. Originally released by Tiger Electronics, this toy was later sold to Hasbro in 2005 to 2007. Since their introduction to the market, Furbys have been occupying our shelves and basements, perceived as “annoying little owl-like dolls with embedded sound-recording chips” (Gullin) that speak their own language “furbish” (shown throughout in parenthesis). Early reportage likened Furby to all kinds of cute critters: mogwais, hamsters, and Star Trek’s tribbles. Narratively Furbys are framed as a benevolent, alien species, living in space in a cloud known as Furbyland. For motivations not revealed, Furbys, in looking down on our planet, were so struck by the beautiful view of nature and its signs of peacefulness — “no worry (boo boh-bay)” — that they jumped, plummeting to us like tiny fluffy asteroids. Little did they know that their arrival would spark an intergalactic diplomatic incident.

During its introduction in 1998, the initial discourse in media reportage emphasised anxieties of the unknown. What lies beneath the surface of Furby, as a toy that might blur the line between the real and imagined for children? What technologies might it harbour? As a hybrid of technology and animal, Furby appeared as a creepy-cute cultural icon that simultaneously delighted and horrified children and adults alike. Today adult fans reimagine Furby through play and customisation as part of their reflections on their childhood experiences of this cultural moment, and as a way of exploring new futures. Furby provides an opportunity to reflect on adults’ interactions with toys, including parents, members of the public, and fans motivated by nostalgia. At the time of its release Furby presented adults with moments of “dissonance” towards new horrifying technologies that “might occur at the seams [of] … monumental cultural shifts” (Powell 4). But for adult fans today, as a childhood memory, the toy represents both strangeness and future possibilities; it has become a tool of “disrupt[ing] and challeng[ing] beliefs and connections” (Rand 9).

In this article I primarily analyse the “original” Furbys of 1998 to 2002, but also mention a range of later versions. This includes: the Emoto-tronic Furbys (2006) which were designed to have more expressive faces; the Furby Boom (2003), a toy whose personality changes according to the level of care it is provided with; and the Furby Connect (2016), which has bluetooth capacity. This discussion is supported by a thematic analysis of 3800 news articles about Furby from 1998 to 2000, visual analysis of both the original and customised iterations of Furby, as well as my reflections as a member of the Furby fandom community. 

You Play? (U-nye-loo-lay-doo?): Furby Encounters

A key part of the discourse around Furby since its introduction in 1998 was, “who would want one?” Indeed, the answer at the time appeared to be “several million of us, the toy demons hope” (Weeks). After their release in American toy stores on 2 October 1998 in limited supplies, a Furbish frenzy ensued, resulting in altercations between shoppers and staff (e.g. Munroe; Warmbir; Associated Press). Aged 10, I recall my little black and white Furby, Coco, waiting for me on the shelves of the electronics section of Big W in Australia, fortunately with no such commotion.

Furby is classed by the Guinness World Records as the world’s first AI toy, but it was certainly not the first electronic toy to enter the market; at the time of Furby’s release, Tickle Me Elmo and My Interactive Pooh presented competition, and by the late 1980s there was already concern about how electronic pet toys might erode emotion and connection (Turkle, “Authenticity”; Turkle, “Nascent”). Speculation over the reason for the Furby mass hysteria ensued. Some suggested the appeal was the toy’s status symbol status (Beck), whereas others cited its broad appeal: “it's not gender specific; it doesn't appeal to a particular age group; and most important, it's affordable and doesn't require additional equipment or a computer” (Davis). Some experts offered their commentary of the cyberpet phenomena in general, suggesting that it is a way of dealing with isolation and loneliness (Yorkshire Post). Indeed, all of these features are important to note when we consider the transformation of Furby into queer icon.

Central to Furby’s cultural narrative is the idea of contact, or a meeting between robot and user; through play children “teach” their new pet Earth’s new ways (Marsh, “Coded”; Marsh, “Uncanny”). And with this contact also comes a sense of the unknown: what lies beneath the creature’s surface? In their study of zoomorphic robots, Hirofumi Katsumi and Daniel White suggest that Donna Haraway’s work on animal encounters might help us understand this idea of contact. As “animal-like” creature, Furby recalls the transformative potentials of meeting with the more-than-human. Furby’s presence on toy shelves, in classrooms and in homes was one of the first times society had to consider what it meant to “enter the world of becoming with” zoomorphic robots, and to reflect on “who or what ... is precisely at stake” in this entanglement (Haraway 19). What do we learn about ourselves and the unknown through our encounters with Furby?

“Monster” (Moh-moh): Technological Threat, Monstrous Other

In media reportage, Furby is framed as both new and innovative, but also as a threatening fluffy anarchist. With its technology largely unknown, Furby at the time of its release presented society with a sense of “technohorror” and “imaginings of [social] collapse” (Powell 24). A common concern was that Furby might record and repeat inappropriate language in an act of rebellion. Occasionally tabloid newspapers would report claims such as, "MUM … was horrified when she sat down to play with her daughter's new Furby toy and it squeaked: "F*** me" (The Sun). Some concerns were quite serious, including that Furby could emit electromagnetic fields that would create interference for medical devices and aircraft instruments; this was later disproven by engineers (Tan and Hinberg; Basky; Computer Security). Other urban myths pointed to a more whimsical Furby, whose sensors had the capacity to launch spacecraft (Watson).

One persistent concern was the surveillance potentials of Furby. In 1999 the US National Security Agency (NSA) issued a ban on Furby in their Fort Mead headquarters, with concern that they might record and repeat confidential information (Gullin; Ramalho; Borger). This was denied by Tiger Electronics, who emphatically stated “Furby is not a spy” (Computer Security). Engineers performing “autopsies” on Furbys quickly put much of this anxiety to rest (Phobe). This was met with mirthful rebuttals of how future Furbys might be transformed into cute and ubiquitous “wireless furby transmitters” to gather intelligence in warzones (Gullin). As a result, the initial anxiety about surveillance and toys dissipated.

However, academics continue to remind us of the real risks of smart toys (e.g. Lupton; Milkaite and Lievens). The 2016 Furby Connect, equipped with voice recognition and Bluetooth capacities has been shown to be hackable (Williams). Further, Maria Ramalho has reported Snowden’s 2014 claims that both NSA and the UK Government Communication Headquarters have been accessing the data collected. In this context, Furby has become “Big Brother transmogrified into ambiguous, cute” unaccountable creature (Ramalho). Through this, we can see how our entanglement with Furby as an object of technohorror speaks both to our anxieties and the real possibilities of technology.

In order to craft a narrative around Furby that speaks to this monstrous potential, many have drawn comparisons between Furby and the character Gizmo from the Gremlins franchise. This reference to Gizmo appears in the majority of the media articles sampled for this research. Gizmo is a “mogwai” (trans. demon) with both cute and monstrous potential; like Furby, it also has the potential to transform into a threat to “good society” (Chesher 153-4). This comparison speaks to Gremlins as an anti-technology statement (Sale). However, when we consider how media rhetoric has framed Furby as something to be tamed and controlled, it’s important we approach this comparison with caution in light of the Orientalist underpinnings of the Gremlins franchise. Wendy Allison Lee highlights how Gremlins reflects xenophobic themes of invasion and assimilation. While Gizmo is a “cute, well-behaved” character who “strives to assimilate” much like how Furby might, through play with children, it also harbours a threat to order. In this encounter are resonances of “racist love” that can sometimes underpin our affection for cuteness (Bow). Further reflection is needed on how we might unentangle ourselves from this framing and imagine more inclusive futures with toys like Furby.

Fig. 2: Interactive Gizmo, a “Furby Friend” produced by Hasbro, Tiger and Warner Bros in 1999

Big Fun! (Dah doo-ay wah!): Queer Re-Imaginings of Furby

Fig. 3: Party time!

Adult fans around the world now gather under the “Furby” banner, participating in a colourful array of playful mischief. Reddit forum r/furby (11,200 subscribers) creates a fun space to enjoy the whimsy of Furby, transforming the figure into a sweet and kind companion. Under this umbrella, r/oddbodyfurby (997 subscribers) explore the horrifying potentials of Furby to its playful and surprising ends, which I discuss in this section. In other forums, such as Furby Collectors and Customisers (4.1k members) on Facebook, these different interests come together in a playful and creative space. There was also an active community on Tumblr, where some of the most creatively generative activities around Furby have occurred (Tiffany). In Japan, there is a lively community of fans on Twitter who dress and photograph Emoto-tronic Furbys in a range of cute and charming ways. This forms part of a broader network of creatives, such as “Circuit Benders” who tear down toys and rework them into instruments in a process known as “frankensteining”, such as Look Mum No Computer’s Furby Organ (Deahl).

As fans and artists, people act as “queer accessories” to help Furby escape the world and narrative that sought to enclose it, so it might enact its revenge or transcend as a non-binary queer icon (Rand 9-11). As small, collectible and customisable friends, images of happy and creepy Furbys are part of a network of cute media that provides my generation with a source of comfort during times of precarity, occupying our spaces with their own vitality and presence as soothing companions (e.g. Stevens; Allison; Yano). Cuteness as media also lends itself to hybridisation; a mixing and matching with seemingly “opposing” aesthetics.

For many fans, the charm of Furby lies in its nostalgic pull as a creature of childhood creepy-cute nightmares. Indeed, it seems that early concerns that Furby may “blur the line between the real and imagined for many children” were in fact valid (Knowlton). While we knew they weren’t “alive” in the true sense, to us they appeared “sort of alive” as our everyday environments became increasingly technological with a dazzling array of electronics (Turkle, “Authenticity”). As Allison (179) explains, we had to “adjust to a world where the border between the imaginary and the real” began to shift rapidly, leaving us open to dream, imagine, and craft narratives populated by a fear of the mechanised undead.

Many Millennials were convinced as children that their Furby was waiting for them in the dark, watching, chuckling (“he he heeeee”). Patrick Lenton, diarising his adventures with a rescue Furby this year recalls his childhood toy as “a riot of noise and fury, the kind of demonic household terror”. Some adults, recalling these memories now refer to Furby as “it” or “evil” (Marsh, “Uncanny” 59). In 2020, adult Furby fans, thinking back to their childhood toys, speculated if the positioning of Furby’s eyes at the front of its head meant it was a predator (Watson). Some suggested that their short legs meant they are ambush predators, their infra-red sensor enabling them to detect prey in the dark. Other playful lore suggested that they were made of real cat and dog fur. Through this act of imaginative play, adults reach back to the playful horrors of their childhoods, combining their sense of dread with glee. This has been recently animated by films such as The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021), where Furbys equipped with “PAL” chips transmogrify into a horrific pack of menacing creatures, and exact revenge.

The main contributing factor to this experience is in part the puppetry of Furby. The 1999 Furby presents an exaggerated performance that is both “alive” and “unalive”, its wild rocking, owlish blinking, and cackling creating a sense of “dread and creeping horror” (Freud 2; Marsh, “Uncanny”). Through a blend of animation and imagination, agency is diffused between toy and child to give Furby “life” (Silvio 423). Interestingly, studies of the 2016 Furby Connect and its friendly and social programming that is designed to encourage positive care and engagement has counteracted some of this experience for children (Marsh, “Uncanny” 54). Likewise, in discussing the 2013 Furby Boom Chesher (151) describes this animation as “zany”, working with Sianne Ngai’s conceptualisation of this aesthetic and its relationship to cuteness. While some might praise these later developments in the Furby franchise as having saved another generation of children from nightmares, compared to the original Furby these later editions are less popular among fans; perhaps there is less “material” to work with.

Fans as adults now draw on Furby as a playful and cute text to experiment with and hybridise with a variety of horrifying and surprising potentials. This leans into Furby’s design as a chimera, as it uses a combination of cute features to create a “short-hand” for life and also evoke the “idea” or “character” of appealing animals that form part of cultures “charismatic megafauna” (Nishimura 179; Stuck and Rogers; Gn). With cat-like ears, a tuft of hair that drifts with sympathetic movement, two wide eyes, framed with coquettish false lashes, a bird’s beak, and two paws, Furby both suspends and confounds our disbelief. Following the principles of the Kindchenschema (Lorenz) to a “100% ratio” its body is reduced to a round form, its most dominant feature its large eyes (Borgi, Cogliati-Dezza, Brelsford Meints, and Cirulli). While large eyes generally are thought to have an affective pull to them (Harris 4), their fixed placement in the original Furby’s skull creates a dead-pan gaze, that morphs into a Kubrik stare as the toy tilts forward to greet the viewer.

Fig. 4: Kindschenschema at work in Furby’s design

Furby fans mischievously extend this hybridisation of Furby’s body further through a range of customisation practices. Through “skinning”, Furby’s faux fur surfaces are removed and replaced with a fantastic array of colours and textures. Through breaking into their mechatronic shell – a practice known as “shucking” – their parts are repaired or modified. This results in a range of delightfully queer, non-binary representations of Furby with a range of vibrant furs, piercings, and evocative twinkling and gentle eyes (“tee-wee-lah!”). These figures act as both avatars and as companions for fans. Sporting earrings and rainbow bead necklaces, they are photographed resting in grassy fields, soft crochet rainbows, and bookshelves: they are an expression of all that is joyful in the world.

Some fans push the customisation further to create whimsical creatures from another dimension. Some Furbys appear with moss and lichen for fur, sprouting tiny toadstools. Furbys are also transformed into “oddbodies” of varying species. Some appear both as winged fairies, and as transcendental multi-eyed and winged “biblically accurate” angels. Others are hybridised with plush toys or are reworked into handbags. Some veer into the realm of body horror, using doll limbs and bodies to create humanoid forms. The most iconic is the “long furby”, created by Tumblr user FurbyFuzz in 2018. Elongated and insect-like, the Long Furby wriggles into homes and curls up on soft furnishings. Collectors gather “haunted photos from the dark recesses of the internet” to document their escapades (Long Furby). Sometimes, hybridised Furbys appear not through creator interventions but rather emerge from nature itself. One such mythical creature is Murby, an original Furby unearthed in 2013 on an old farm property. Once toy, now woodland spirit, Murby gazes upon and blesses fans with dreamy, clouded eyes, its body an entanglement of thick moss, rich earth and time.

Furby’s queerness, strangeness, and hybridity speaks to fans in different ways. Personally, as a neurodivergent person, I experience the coding and the playful reimaginings of Furby as a reflection of my own life experience. Neurodivergent people have a high capacity for care and empathy for objects as curiosities, supports, and friends (e.g. Atherton and Cross; White and Remington; Clutterbuck, Shah and Livingston). Like Furby, I am an alien whom people want to tame. My body and movement are treated with the same infantilising bemusement and suspicion. I feel like a chimera myself; an entanglement of many parts that make a whole, each on their own charming, but together forming a chaotic attempt to connect with neurotypicals. For me, what lies beneath Furby’s surface is my own psyche; rescuing and customising Furbys is a symbolic act, a creative expression of my desire to transcend and resist ableist forces. Together my Furbys and I revel in our strangeness in solidarity, plotting our mischievous revenge (“party time!”). This micro-level resistance will not overturn ableism but brings me a sense of reprieve as I work with my allies to bring socio-cultural change.

Fig. 5: The author, Furby Queen. Photo by Sherbet Birdie Photography.

Through their creative work, fans explore how Furbys could be reimagined. While fannish activities may at first glance appear fringe or frivolous, they hold up a mirror to our own limitations, anxieties, and practices as a society. The future is Furby.

Go to Sleep Now (U-nye-way-loh-nee-way): Conclusions

As a source of technohorror and queer potential, Furby provides a vessel by which we can imagine the futures of toys. Through encounter and contact, this seemingly harmless fluffy robot brought about disruption and chaos as a threat to securities and social fabrics. Adult fans, now recalling this cultural moment, lean into this creature’s promise of new possibilities, queering its cultural narrative. Through exploring adults’ interactions with toys, we explore new potentials for change and futures that are playful and creative.


This article was produced with the support of a Vitalities Lab Scholarship and the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society. I also thank Deborah Lupton and David Eastwood for their support in the production of an arts-based project that draws on this research into cyberpet histories.


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Author Biography

Megan Catherine Rose, UNSW Sydney

Dr Megan Catherine Rose is an Australian researcher at the Vitalities Lab, UNSW Sydney, Australia and the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision Making and Society. She is researching the creepy-cute potentials of zoomorphic cyberpets and therapeutic aids.