You’ve seen Fingerlings. They’re the colorful monkey, sloth, or unicorn clinging to all those prepubescent fingers. Their sensors and AI allow them to react to gestures and sounds, so they can chat, kiss, snore, and even fart. They’re a hell of a lot cooler than a fidget spinner and at $15 they’re about the same price. But if you want to buy one now you’re probably shit-out-of-luck. Fingerlings are out of stock at almost all big-box stores, and they’re selling on eBay with prices ranging from double the original to as much as $5,000.
That’s all because Fingerlings are the latest volume in the canon of must-have children’s holiday gifts. They’ve joined the historic ranks with Tamagotchi, Beanie Babies, Furby, Tickle Me Elmo, and Hatchimals. But while the gift sensations of your childhood were often flashes of good luck or expensive marketing campaigns, this year’s sold-out toy was socially engineered—from concept to launch—to be a viral phenomenon.
It all started with viral videos of tiny adorable monkeys. “There were videos and photos of pygmy marmosets we kept shooting around internally,” Davin Sufer told Gizmodo. Sufer is the chief technology officer of the Montreal-based WowWee, maker of Fingerlings. “These tiny little monkeys that fit in your hand and they’re super, super cute.”
The pygmy marmoset is the smallest monkey in the world—weighing about 100 grams and teeny enough to fit entirely into a shirt pocket without even a tuft of hair poking out. Sufer showed Gizmodo the photo that first sparked the WowWee team’s interest, a smokey glassy-eyed critter clinging to an index finger, with a look that could be bemusement or fear.
WowWee brand manager Sydney Wiseman was especially fascinated with the palm-sized primate, and has been since she was a kid. Wiseman, niece of WowWee owners Peter and Richard Yanofsky, kept emailing her colleagues photos of the wee creature, insisting they make a robot version. Around May 2016, designers and engineers started designing the toy, trying to figure out if it should be made of cloth, plush, or plastic. By October they had prototypes with their AI and sensors inside.
Cheap Fingerlings Monkey
WowWee has been in the toy robotics game for a while. One of their most successful previous bots was the MiP, a wheeled freestanding robot that also came in a dinosaur and Minion version. Before that, their major success was Robosapiens, launched in 2004, which walked on two legs and cost about $100. But with Fingerlings, WowWee simplified the technology that it had been putting into larger expensive toys (approximately $40 to $120) and sold it for about $15.
Dufner sounds like Dr. Frankenstein when he describes bringing the Fingerling to life. “The first time we saw it all together in the prototype—all that design and engineering—the blinking eye, the head motion. We started animating it, we hooked it up to a computer and started loading up sound. That moment the whole company had this awareness that this is really big.”
Then the company reached out to young social media influencers, offering to send them a piñata banana filled with Fingerlings (and, in some cases, pay them) if they posted about it on social media using the hashtag #FingerlingsFriday on the day of the US launch, August 11.