The Yoto Player, a connected speaker for kids, has more in common with old-school cassette players than smart speakers like Amazon Echo or Google Home devices. It deliberately doesn’t have a microphone, camera, or a screen — it’s really just designed to play audio, but through NFC-enabled physical cards. Inspired by Montessori teachings that emphasize tactile learning and encourage kids to have a level of independence, the cards are loaded with songs, audiobooks, and podcasts to let kids choose what they want to listen to. It was created by two parents who wanted to minimize screen time for their kids — compare to Bluetooth speakers that need to be paired with a phone — and after a successful Kickstarter run with its first version, Yoto partnered with Pentagram, (the renowned design studio behind everything from Yahoo’s redesign to microprocessors) for a second run.
The physical cards slot into the top of the speaker like the nostalgic HitClips of yore, which encased bite-sized clips of music in tiny plastic squares. Parents can connect the speaker to a companion app to “upload” their own content onto blank cards, or purchase cards that connect to Yoto’s library of music, activities, sound effects, and audiobooks from partners like Random House and the Roald Dahl collection. The speaker requires Wi-Fi, and the NFC cards contain links to content stored on Yoto’s servers, so the speaker is actually downloading content when they’re inserted into the Yoto Player. Blank cards can be customized with your own MP3s, purchased audiobooks, or anything you upload to Yoto’s server. There’s free daily content, but Yoto is also selling an annual subscription service that delivers new audio cards to your house four times a year, which costs $94. That seems like a lot to pay compared to the catalogs of audiobooks and music readily available on the Kindle library or streaming services, but parents are paying for the peace of mind knowing that their kids won’t be listened to, or subjected to an overwhelming selection of potentially child-unfriendly content.
“As physical objects, [the cards] not only allow children to be in control of content, but also support learning and play, and for very young children also promote fine motor control development,” Pentagram’s Jon Marshall told Fast Company.
The Yoto’s design is meant to be simple enough for kids to use, but sleek and modern in a way adults can appreciate. The only controls on the speaker are the two red knobs, and the soft edges of the blocky design let kids tip the speaker to turn it on and off. The soft-lit pixel display occasionally shows a friendly face or basic drawings. It can also be used as a regular Bluetooth speaker.
The speaker can charge wirelessly on top of a magnetic dock that comes included, and a built-in battery means kids can take the speaker with them wherever they go. It only lasts for about three hours of continuous play, which isn’t a lot for a wireless speaker, but Yoto says this will be improved through software updates. The Yoto Player costs $107, and will begin shipping this month.