Tools & toys: Pleo, the Poop-Free Pet

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  • www.spectrum.ieee.org

    our cats considered pleo real and scarythey ran for cover whenever we tried to get them to meet her

    tools&toys

    when Pleo the robotic dinosaur moved in to my house for two weeks in January, my kidsages 9, 12, and 16were thrilled. They quickly decided that Pleo was a girl; Ill refer to her as one from now on.

    The brainchild of Ugobe, a robotics company in Emeryville, Calif., Pleo looks and acts the way youd expect a baby Camarasaurus to, thanks to sophisticated robotics. She has two 32-bit and four 8-bit microprocessors, fourteen motors, a camera, two microphones, eight sensors under her rubberized skin, a tilt sensor, an infrared mouth sensor, fourteen force- feedback sensors, and four switches in her feet. [See our video at http://spectrum.ieee.org/video?id=100.]

    First, the good: the movement and sounds are indeed amazing. My daughter handed Pleo to a friend to cuddle, and Pleo nestled in and wrapped her tail securely around the friends arm, completely freaking her out. Our cats considered Pleo real and scarythey ran for cover whenever we tried to get them to meet her.

    Although her behaviors are set to be triggered by certain stimuli, at least one trick appeared to come at random (in any case, we never figured out how to elicit it): Pleo would hold up one front leg and one back leg, balance on the other two, and chortle. My kids called it the yippee! but I never got to see this one.

    Now, the bad: battery life is a huge problem; ideally, youd let Pleo have the run

    of the house. But if you leave her alone, she goes to sleep after a few minutes to conserve power. A full charge, which takes 3 to 4 hours to complete, will let her play continuously for about 40 minutes. Sometimes the battery overheated, cutting the sessions shorter still.

    Then theres the price. Ugobe had originally planned to sell Pleo by Christmas 2006 for less than US $200, but the shipping date slipped to late last year, and the list price rose to $349. That busts the

    cheaper than an iPod price that many parents set as the limit for their childrens toys.

    Finally, Pleo has only a small bag of tricks. Though the behaviors are well conceived and implementedshe settles down to sleep, shies away from the edge of a

    table, tussles

    with the toy leaf included in the package, and explores new objectsthere are too few to keep Pleo interesting.

    When I first saw Pleo two years ago, at a conference for emerging technologies, I was impressed by Ugobes claim that the dinosaur would develop a personality based on how it was treated. But now the company says it will provide most of that malleability only later, via free software updates.

    Once I told my kids that Pleo didnt actually learn much from the way she was handled, they found the most interesting thing to do was to hold her upside down by her tail, making her scream and squirm. And then they would see how quickly they could calm her down and put her to sleep.

    After a few days with Pleo, my kids lost interest and abandoned the dinosaur in a corner of the living room. So I took her to my office. There is something cozy, albeit strange, about having her wake up and roam around. She just discovered a chest full of electronic gear and is completely obsessed with it. I wonder whether shes programmed to bond with other gizmos.

    My call? The folks at Ugobe may be onto something, but theyre not there yet.

    Tekla S. Perry

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    Pleo, the Poop-Free Petcan ugobes robotic dinosaur replace the family cat?

    24 NA iEEE SpEctrum April 2008

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