Pleo, the Poop-Free Pet

Can Ugobe's robotic dinosaur replace the family cat?

PHOTO: Ugobe

When Pleo the robotic ­dinosaur moved in to my house for two weeks in January, my kids--ages 9, 12, and 16—were thrilled. They quickly decided that Pleo was a girl; I’ll refer to her as one from now on.

The brainchild of Ugobe, a robotics ­company in Emeryville, Calif., Pleo looks and acts the way you’d expect a baby Camarasaurus to, thanks to ­sophisticated ­robotics. She has two 32-bit and four 8â''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.]

Our cats considered Pleo real and scary—they ran for cover whenever we tried to get them to meet her

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 friend’s arm, completely freaking her out. Our cats considered Pleo real and scary—they 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, you’d 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 there’s 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 children’s toys.

Finally, Pleo has only a small bag of tricks. Though the behaviors are well ­conceived and implemented—she settles down to sleep, shies away from the edge of a table, tussles with the toy leaf included in the package, and explores new objects—there 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 Ugobe’s 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 didn’t 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 she’s programmed to bond with other gizmos.

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

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