Overwhelmed With Gadgets? Here's a Dinosaur.

By Leslie Walker
Thursday, February 9, 2006

PHOENIX You know something's happening when the robots go retro.

Pleo, a $200 robot introduced at the Demo technology conference here this week, looks like a baby dinosaur barely bigger than a squirrel.

You'd never guess from patting its rubbery back or watching its squishy head wobble that inside, Pleo is controlled by eight computer chips, 14 motors, 38 sensors and software running advanced math formulas to help the lifelike toy dinosaur decide what to do next.

Hiding technology behind a lifelike facade was a big goal of the team that developed Pleo, according to Caleb Chung, inventor of the robot and co-founder of its parent company, Ugobe Inc. Chung is better known as co-creator the Furby doll.

"Pleo is the first technology that is aiming its focus on human emotional interactions and relationships," Chung said in an interview Tuesday.

As machines and man become closer, Chung thinks humans will be able relate better to inanimate partners if they develop personalities and other humanlike traits. That's why Ugobe spent five years developing the first in what is planned to be a series of robots programmed to display emotion and learn from their dealings with humans.

"Someone has to take a serious look at who is authoring these personalities that we are interfacing with on computers," Chung said. "In order to make them useful to humans, you have to give them empathy. If they have empathy to the human condition, they can better serve you."

What his company calls its "designer life forms" learn from what they see and do by writing new software code on the fly that incorporates their unique experiences as they evolve.

As I watched Pleo interact with people lining up to feel its soft green head in the exhibit hall here, I couldn't help thinking that this baby dino will be a big hit when it reaches stores this fall.

Why? Because Pleo resonates with an underlying theme at this year's Demo conference: how technology is growing so complex and overloaded with features that the computer industry is in danger of creating a consumer backlash.

"Individuals are becoming overwhelmed," Chris Shipley, the event's executive producer, told the audience of 700 investors, reporters and entrepreneurs. "And worse, I believe that this state of being overwhelmed has moved the personal computing market to the point of diminishing returns."

Maybe that's why Shipley opened the show Tuesday with the debut of an ice cream vending machine. The MooBella makes ice cream from scratch, flash-freezing ingredients on the spot and scooping out 4.5 ounces into a cup after a customer chooses from 90 flavor combinations using a touch-screen menu.

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