A Dinosaur With a Future?

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, December 23, 2007

"When the robots take over the Earth, I want them to remember somewhere in their DNA that I was kind to the Pleo," says Frank Townend.

Townend is the proud parent, as some owners regard themselves, of the latest product that has some of the world's technophiles abuzz: a cute little robot with a programmable personality and the looks of a cuddly, puppy-sized baby dinosaur.

Treat the Pleo nicely, and he'll develop into a chummy robo-companion. Be mean to him by swinging him by the tail, for instance, and he'll supposedly grow up to be skittish and irritable. (I recently tried kicking one around, literally, but didn't have the heart to give my loaner Pleo the full Jack Bauer.)

Pleo has two built-in microphones for hearing, a camera for detecting motion and sensors under his skin to tell him when you're petting him. In his belly are a USB port and an SD card slot, in case you want to load him up with the latest software posted online by his creators or by other Pleo enthusiasts and programmers.

Pleo, sold for $350 by California start-up Ugobe, has been the subject of fascination in the geek community ever since it made a preview appearance at the prestigious Demo technology conference in 2006. Most early owners, like Townend, who works as a tech security guy in the District, signed up months ago to buy one of the first batch, which just started shipping.

It's too early to know whether the Pleo will become a hit and a household name, said Silicon Valley tech pundit Paul Saffo. But, he assures, robots are on the way.

"Robots are the next big thing, plain as day," he said. "I'll hand in my forecaster's license if I'm wrong."

In the '80s, technology's big advance was the development of the affordable home computer, says Saffo. In the '90s, it was the Web, which networked all those computers. Today, with all the input mechanisms we're already plugging into our computers -- microphones, speakers, Webcams and so on -- it's just a matter of time until somebody puts some legs or wheels on the whole shebang and figures out a compelling product. The robotic equivalent of the iPod, say.

"All the pieces are there, they're just waiting to be connected by the right entrepreneur -- some Steve Jobs able to figure out just what people want," said Saffo.

This isn't the consumer tech industry's first shot at the robo-pet. Sony tried these waters years ago, with a $2,500 robot doggy launched in 1999 called the Aibo; the company eventually pulled the plug on the product.

The Pleo has, for what it's worth, the closest thing to a pedigree a robotic pet can get: One of the creators, Caleb Chung, is the same guy who created the Furby, that robotic toy that became a hit 10 years ago and sold 40 million units.

In order to build an online community for the device, Ugobe has put together a Web site for the Pleo, where owners can compare notes or start blogs (called "plogs" here) devoted to their robot pals. One Pleo parent notes that she caught her pet playing with its shadow. Another man writes that he is impatient to get delivery of his new "little womanizer" so that he can take it on playdates. Stories of Pleos interacting with Roombas -- those robotic vacuum cleaners -- abound.

Ugobe is courting fans and encouraging their creativity in ways that Sony did not. Sony actively tried to shut out hackers, for example, threatening to sue an Aibo fan who figured out how to reprogram his robotic dog and make it dance. Ugobe, by contrast, is planning to release a software kit that will allow owners to easily create new Pleo behaviors.

To get things rolling, the company has created a couple of software programs for the Pleo. One has the Pleo barking out holiday songs. Another puts the robot in "watchdog" mode, where it barks and growls in response to any noise or motion.

Ugobe has other robotic "companions" in the works. They're not necessarily dinosaurs, said the company's chief technology officer John Sosoka, though he wouldn't elaborate on what species the company is turning to next for inspiration.

"I loved 'Blade Runner' when I was younger," Sosoka said. "This is the tiniest little step in that direction."

My wife and stepson instantly adored the Pleo; my 7-year-old stepson quickly dubbed him Rex. As in, "Can Rex sleep in bed with me?" "Can we keep Rex?"

Most, but not all, people who encountered Rex over the last week or so also seemed to quickly fall in love the thing.

I wondered whether my dog would meet the Pleo, which does not require early morning trips to the back yard, and vaguely grasp her looming obsolescence. But she had no interest in the Pleo at all from the start.

A few days later, I'm a little underwhelmed with the Pleo, too.

Cute? Oh, yes. But the Pleo doesn't come when he's called, and he doesn't quite have the brains to chase after the plastic leaf that you're supposed to periodically "feed" to him. The whirring of his 14 internal motors and gears is just loud enough to remind you that this isn't flesh and blood.

Rex could get a lot smarter, I think, and eventually do a better job of blurring the line between robot and critter.

Most of my gadgets get smarter on a regular basis, thanks to the magic of downloadable software updates. Ugobe plans to release a big update for the Pleo's software early next year, and I get the feeling that a lot more of the Pleo's capabilities will be come to the surface then. (Or perhaps that's when the robot endgame will kick in . . .)

But no, we can't keep him. Rex will be getting back into a box soon and heading home to California. I'll miss him ever so slightly, but not as much as I'd miss the iPhone, the Wii, the high-definition TV, the satellite radio player, USB thumb drives, my Gmail account or my car's seat warmers.

"As cool as it is and will be," admits Townend, "I really do like my cats better."

Hopefully, when the robots take over the Earth, they'll overlook that last crack.

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