You Tell Us: Interactive Toy Robot

2 min read

Remember the Furby, that moving, talking, hairy ball that kids coveted for Christmas in 1998? Now one of its cocreators has unleashed the Pleo, a more evolved follow-on in the shape of a baby dinosaur that reacts to stimuli with far greater flexibility but comes at a heftier price: US $199. Is it an astounding kid’s toy or just another gadget for the adult who has everything?

Pleo currently has no cameras, so it can’t see, and no voice-recognition software, so it can’t come when called. But about 40 sensors under its rubbery skin do clue it in on changes in light, sound, and motion, and its proprietary operating system and ARM7 low-power, 32-bit RISC microprocessor core are programmed to make it respond to changes in its environment—and in itself. For instance, a so-called lactic acid program causes Pleo to lie down and rest after a period of battery-draining activity. To get new behaviors, users can write their own programs or download them from the Web, then put them on the machine’s removable secure digital (SD) flash memory cards.

It’s the brainchild of Caleb Chung, who has all along sought to create a ”designer life form.” That’s the phrase used by Chung’s start-up, Ugobe, in Emeryville, Calif. Chung and the other technical wizards behind the toy say they expect it to be hacked. Software development kits will soon be available, allowing Pleo to evolve through the addition of ever more advanced programs and new hardware, such as cameras, microphones, and receivers.

As an electronic gadget, it is certainly cool. But it seems to fall in a market chasm, being too expensive a toy for small children, but not hyperkinetic enough for the average music-video- and home-video-game-addled teenager. Will parents be reluctant to buy it for fear that it will be shunted aside after the novelty has worn off, as many live pets are? Either way, Ugobe has missed a golden opportunity, because last-minute tweaks pushed Pleo’s release date well past the holiday gift-giving season when buzz alone might have swept it along with the current of year-end shopping frenzy.

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