November 21, 2006 10:00 AM PST

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There's one thing the so-called companion robots released by Sony, Honda and others have in common: they haven't sold well.

Ugobe, however, hopes to change that next year with a cheaper, more versatile toy called the Pleo. Pleo is a robotic dinosaur coming in the second quarter of 2007 that reacts "emotionally" to its surroundings.

If you talk to it in a coo, it becomes more responsive, wagging its tail and offering to shake hands. If you are curt, it can display signs of being depressed--its back slumps, it emits a mooing sound and its tail drags plaintively. It can express joy and aggression. It can also yawn, sigh, sniff, sniffle, snore, cough, hiccup and sneeze.

Pleo

A camera in the robot's nostrils lets it "see," and multiple sensors under its feet and skin can respond to touch. While it won't recognize spoken commands, it will recognize tones and react to what it senses in them.

"You can consider it more of a lifelike creature than a toy," Ugobe CEO Bob Christopher said during an interview at CNET's San Francisco headquarters. "We're kind of putting psychology back into robots."

To date, cute and cuddly robots have died quick and horrific deaths. Sony's Aibo was introduced to great fanfare, but only about 150,000 sold in the six years the company had it on the market. A wisecracking boy-humanoid called Qrio never made it out of the factory. Panasonic came out with robotic pets, but dropped them--now the company is considering coming out with robots that will pick up hospital patients or help individuals who have arm injuries.

The Pleo, though, will differ in a few respects from earlier attempts at companion robots. First, it will cost around $250 when it hits shelves slightly later than planned, in the second quarter next year. (Ugobe showed it off earlier this year at the Demo 2006 conference.) While the Aibo sold for $1,900, the Pleo tag is closer to the price of two of the more successful robot products on the market: the $99 Robosapien toys from WowWee and the floor-cleaning robots from iRobot, which are priced from $99 to $400.

Second, Ugobe will try to go beyond selling a walking/talking toy. The company will publish a developers' kit and open its source code, making the Pleo something of a cousin to the Lego Mindstorms kits or the old Radio Shack 64-in-1 electronics kits. Consumers thus will be able to download "personality modules" and see how their Pleos react to different stimuli.

"There are 400 discrete movements built into it," according to Christopher. A consumer, for example, could plug in "hungry" and "scared" and see how Pleo reacts to a hand in front of its nose when in those states; then the owner could, hypothetically, change the personality characteristics to angry and irritable.

There will also be programming modules to teach the bot how to do tricks. Consumers could program Aibo too, but less in the "let's see what happens" vein. Instead, most of Aibo's programs centered around performing fairly well-defined tasks: playing MP3s or barking when an appointment came up on the owner's Microsoft Outlook calendar.

Ultimately, the company may license the technology so others can build or incorporate robots into their own products. "We've created a toolset for making lifelike robots," Christopher said.

Ugobe was founded by Caleb Chung, who co-created the famed Furby, a doll that "showed" different emotions. As with the Furby, the idea behind the Pleo is that people will form emotional attachments to objects or machines that seem alive and can move with a certain degree of autonomy. (Author's note: I can vouch for this--I tested a floor-washing Scooba from iRobot and began to read personality characteristics into it after a few days.)

The Pleo contains more than 150 gears to help it move in a more natural fashion. Moving the front legs, for instance, will cause changes in the back of the dinosaur. Some of the motions are herky-jerky, so it more closely resembles a young animal.

"People don't move efficiently," Christopher said. "You wouldn't have a nervous twitch if you were totally efficient."

It also contains six microprocessors and a flash memory card slot on its soft underbelly.

A paleontologist helped design the Pleo, and it is anatomically correct. It resembles a one-week-old Camarasaurus, a cow-like dinosaur from the Jurassic period that roamed North America and South America.

See more CNET content tagged:
Ugobe, Sony Aibo, robot, iRobot Corp., toy

 

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