The long-awaited robotic dinosaur is lifelike and charming, but it can require too much work to elicit certain responses from it
In a market full of toys and games that spring into loud, excited action, Ugobe's Pleo speaks to a subtler approach. When I first set the much-hyped, long-delayed green robotic dinosaur on its feet and slid its switch to "on," Pleo didn't so much announce its presence as slowly wake from what seemed like a very long nap.
The little dinosaur on my living room carpet sleepily opened its eyes, arched its back, and sniffed the air, cooing. After several long minutes in its new milieu, things started to happen: The toy's artificial intelligence had the dinosaur look up, cock its head toward my voice, and take a first few tentative steps ahead. When I left the room, it cried for attention.
It's heart-rending moments like those that California's Ugobe is aiming for. Pleo, Ugobe's first product, finally arrived in stores on Dec. 18 after a year of delays resulting from manufacturing problems and extensive tinkering with the toy's fine network of sensors. A series of public demonstrations by Ugobe co-founder Caleb Chung, the creator of 1998's hot toy, Furby, fueled anticipation for Pleo. The Pleo I tested combined a supple hide, a flexible body, and a keen awareness of the movements, sounds, and objects around it to evoke something in need of constant care, like a toddler. That didn't take a lot of effort on my part. But eliciting new responses that go beyond the toy's basic emotional range took some doing—something I wonder if most kids would have the patience for.
Pleo, which costs $350, and allows enthusiastic users to record their own sounds and write their own programs, clearly isn't just for kids. Although it's aimed at children eight and older, the company says it's trying to cultivate an adult market as well. Ugobe's chief technology officer, John Sosoka, says adults might cotton to its companionship, and techies to exploiting its microprocessor-controlled animation and AI. Other chips drive Pleo's 14 motors. Pleo comes with two batteries and runs for about an hour on a charge. (Charging the battery takes about three hours.)
A Good Listener
Part of what brings the 21-in.-long, 7.5-in.-high, 3.5-pound Pleo to life are the responsive touch sensors that sit under the skin of the toy's back, legs, head, and chin. They sense light contact, so Pleo behaves more like an animal that feels a person's presence than a machine with switches to press, Sosoka says. Pleo's neck and tail are built of individual vertebrae, and his joints, feet, mouth, and head are equipped with a variety of sensors, cameras, and microphones.
The effect is a variety of lifelike responses. Ten minutes after I brought Pleo to life, the toy began ambling around the room, taking slow steps toward my desk chair. When Pleo reached one of its legs, it stopped, lowered its head, and sniffed at its discovery like a dog.
Wrap your hands around Pleo's legs, and it will come to you. Talk, and Pleo reacts to conversation. Place a hand in front of Pleo's nose, and it will sniff it. When I picked up Pleo and held it against my shoulder, its front feet stretched out, its tail curled in, and it began burbling like a baby. When I placed Pleo on a table, it walked to the edge, stopped, widened its eyes, and looked down.
Creating Lifelike Companions
The main question that arose during my tests was: Then what? Pleo also is supposed to beg, sing, and respond to objects placed in front of it, but I couldn't elicit those responses. I suspect it will take some serious patience and a willingness to explore for customers to get that far.
Pleo's animatronic ways benefit from several trends in computing and robotics, including miniaturization and the ability to use computing power to add precision to mechanical parts without adding cost, stiffness, and weight. Ugobe says its goal is to create toy companions that are less servile and more lifelike than other robotic products. Pleo's dual nature—autonomous yet attention-craving—heralds a future when that might be true. For now, this babe in toyland would do well to exhibit more of its endearing range of behaviors up front, and leave the hard work to Ugobe's engineers.