How Much Is That Robot In The Window?

Sony is lowering its price and raising its goals for AIBO

When Sony introduced AIBO in Japan last year, it quickly became the consumers' best friend--that is, for those who could get their hands on one of the $2,500, limited-edition critters. Japan's allotment of 3,000 sold out in 20 minutes. In the U.S., Sony's servers crashed as millions tried to buy the 2,000 AIBOs allocated for America. Sony has gone on to sell 40,000 more. Japanese fans account for 90% of the purchases of AIBO, which means "companion" in Japan and also stands for Artificial Intelligence Robot. This was no simple Furby-like toy, but a sophisticated robot that could chase balls and bark for attention. Not since the Walkman and PlayStation has a Sony product created such a stir.

Now the madness seems about to start anew. As Sony sees it, the overwhelming response last year demonstrates that the world--or at least Japan--is ready for entertainment robots. So on Nov. 16, Japan's best-known brand began taking orders for its second-generation AIBO, the first model to be produced in unlimited quantities. This time the robot is not part of the canine family but resembles a lion cub.

The new AIBO boasts a 64-bit microprocessor and 32 bytes of memory, putting it in the same league as a high-end PC. This digital 'bot is more dexterous than its predecessor: In addition to all the usual tricks--heeling or chasing a ball--it does a little dance and waves a front paw on hearing its name. Speech-recognition software lets it learn up to 50 commands.

And, of course, there's the lower price: $1,500 or so, but that's expected to fall if these AIBOs are a hit. "In Japan, the market will be very large," predicts Toshi T. Doi, president of Sony's Digital Creatures Laboratory and AIBO's creator. "As the price goes lower, I think the same thing will happen in the U.S. and Europe." And as the technology becomes more sophisticated, it could be adapted to uses besides entertainment. Some predict that future generations of home robots could do the laundry and assist the elderly and handicapped.

Sony may be on to something big. There are already dozens of Web sites dedicated to the digital creature, plus an AIBO Club with over 30,000 members. Earlier this year, Sony Chairman and CEO Nobuyuki Idei approved the creation of Entertainment Robot Co. to oversee the marketing and production of the AIBO series, which will grow to include all sorts of animals, including dragons. "We're under a lot of pressure to succeed," admits Satoshi Amagai, president of the new venture.

ROBO-KITTY. Sony's top brass wants AIBO to turn into the next big company hit, on a par with PlayStation, which now earns $5 billion a year. Yet with PlayStation, Sony built on the well-established base of the video-game industry. Pioneering a new market poses a different set of challenges: Sony needs to nurture a tier of third-party vendors that can develop programs and interchangeable parts for AIBO. To that end Doi, the Sony scientist, has helped organize Robodex 2000, a robotics conference set for Yokohama in late November. He has invited venture capitalists and other robot designers to attend in the hopes of spurring the new industry.

But before generations of robots start walking off the store shelves, Sony has to create widespread demand. Hitoshi Kuriyama, Sony analyst for Merrill Lynch Japan, believes the price must eventually drop to something like $300 before AIBO will have international mass appeal. Sony plans to start manufacturing 60,000 units a month, all at their VAIO notebook-PC factory in central Japan.

If Sony discovers a mass market, rivals won't be far behind. Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. is working on a robocat as a companion for senior citizens. Honda Motor Co. will soon announce a new version of its stair-climbing humanoid robot, the P3. And NEC Corp.'s cute R100 is a moving remote control that can change television channels or turn on lights. Within a decade, Doi predicts, every household in Japan will have as many as three robots. Who knows? Maybe they'll be aces at PlayStation too.

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