When the Sony Aibo was discontinued in 2006, it was arguably the most sophisticated consumer robot that you could get your hands on. Aibo was smart, cute, fun. It was also hackable. Many people who owned Aibos loved their robots (perhaps a bit too much), and even more people wished they’d had one.
Now Aibo is back. Maybe. According to a recent report, Sony is reassembling the Aibo development team with the goal of releasing a new version of the little robot dog.
Five generations of Aibo robot dogs.Image: Sony
We should note that this information comes from Nikkei Asian Review, not directly from Sony itself, and that the report doesn’t directly cite any sources for this news. Nikkei is well respected, though, and the article is from a staff writer, so we’re hoping that at some point there’s some sort of confirmation from Sony.
The article says that Sony is currently forming a new Aibo development team consisting of everyone who used to work on Aibo and is still at the company. At its height, the Aibo team comprised about 200 people, and when Aibo was discontinued, many of them were shuffled off to work on Sony’s digital cameras or the PlayStation.
Sony is is trying to pull as many of them back together as possible, along with (we would guess) plenty of other people representing a decade or so of advancements in artificial intelligence, robotics, and consumer electronics.
Here’s the really meaty bit from the article:
The company’s first foray into the field will be a robotic pet, frolicking like a real dog while controlling home appliances at voice commands. It will be similar to smart speakers equipped with AI and internet connectivity, such as those offered by Amazon.com and Google, except that it will look and, to some extent, act like a dog.
Sony plans to make the proprietary operating system an open platform to allow outside developers to add features. In addition, technologies have already been mapped out that enable the robot to mimic canine behavior using advanced electronics.
Why is Sony resurrecting Aibo now? What seems most likely is that the company has seen the rise of a handful of home robots that are starting to act as Internet interfaces and smart home coordinators. Jibo and Kuri, to take just two examples, are promising to be doing what Aibo would almost certainly have done if a robust Internet and smart homes existed back in 2006.
Aibo was so far ahead of its time that it was a toy, rather than a smart home robot, and we’re at the beginning of a much more potentially robust market for home robots. If it’s brisk about things, Sony has an opportunity here to leverage its resources and experience to compete favorably with startups like Jibo and Kuri.
The big problems with Aibo in 2004 were that it cost $2,000, and that it was a toy (or at least, sold as such). A 2018 Aibo would not be a toy: It would be a home robotic companion, with an argument for usefulness and practicality. However, Sony will face a few substantial challenges, the most significant of which is likely that the preferred price point for in-home robots (including Jibo and Kuri) is generally under US $1,000. If it were on sale today, an Aibo ERS-7 would cost about $2,500. The cost of sensors, actuators, and computers has dropped, of course, but Aibo walks, and that’s expensive. We have to assume that Sony will be leaning heavily on the idea that Aibo will be a pet, not just a tool, to justify that additional cost, although there’s a slim chance that legs might allow Aibo to do things that other robots can’t, like climb stairs.
To reiterate, this is all just speculation from us, because Sony has yet to say much of anything. We’d like to believe that in addition to Aibo, Sony will be reinvesting in consumer robotics more generally—as many other large Japanese companies have recently discovered (including Toyota, Honda, and SoftBank), now is the time to do so, or they risk getting left behind.