SAN FRANCISCO (Dow Jones) — A small green and tan dinosaur slowly wandered across the table in an airy Emeryville, Calif., office space. As it plodded to the end of the table, one plastic hoof started to step off the ledge and instead it felt thin air. It slowly backed up and murmured a little cry.
The 20-inch-long toy is a much-anticipated robotic device named Pleo, and it will finally ship next month to consumers after a year’s delay. Created by the same team who brought the world the Furby, the Pleo will also mark an advance in robotics, as it packs much of the functionality of far more expensive robotics toys into a much lower cost design.
Some industry futurists believe robotics will be the next big thing. The nascent area has sometimes been compared to the early days of the personal computer industry, when tinkerers gathered in garages and at computing clubs to swap ideas and parts.
“There is a revolution in the offing,” said
Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley technology forecaster. “It’s coming in the next couple of years.”In 2006, a start-up company called Ugobe demonstrated Pleo at an industry conference, with plans to ship by fourth quarter 2006. The little robotic dinosaur got a lot of attention in the press.
But the company, co-founded in 2003 by Furby co-creator
Caleb Chung, missed that target. It had more work to do and Ugobe’s founders wanted Pleo to be great. It now is on track to ship the first Pleos next month, to customers who pre-ordered one of the $350 robots, and to several Web-based retail partners. The Pleo is often compared with the Aibo, the robotic dog put to sleep by Sony Corp. (SNE) when it shuttered its robotics research last year.
Not a toy?
The Ugobe Pleo may not be the killer application needed to jump-start another technology revolution. Saffo does not believe it will be the Cabbage Patch doll (or Furby for that matter) of this holiday season, because its price is too high for a child’s toy.
Ugobe seems to agree. The company plans to ship about 50,000 units this season, but co-founder and CEO
Bob Christopher, believes the potential market for the device is adults who are interested in consumer electronics, or who cannot have a pet but want one. “It’s 20- to 50-year-olds who have said they want to buy a Pleo,” Christopher said, sitting at a conference table with a Pleo nearby. “There are a lot of mainstream people who were looking at the Aibo and saying that it was too expensive.”
The Sony Aibo ranged from around $1,700 to more than $2,000, depending on the model. The Aibo was a cute, small metallic-looking dog which could recognize its owner, dance to a beat, and watch your house with a surveillance camera. It also could simulate learning certain behavioral patterns.
Pleo is about one-fifth the cost of the Aibo, but it still has about half of Aibo’s functionality, estimates San Francisco State University lecturer and roboticist
David Calkins, who also has consulted for Ugobe and trained Aibos for robot soccer competitions. As the cost of chip technology declines, robots with lots of chips will continue to get less expensive. Pleo has 38 sensors, including a sensor on its throat, so it knows when it is being scratched and it makes funny happy noises, like a dinosaur purring, if there ever was such a thing. It also has 14 motors and 100 custom gears to give it movement in its joints and two ARM chips processing its operating system. Its plastic, reptile skin is also less expensive than metal and truer to its form. Pleo feels more like a creature with scales like a lizard. (No one today really knows what it’s like to pet a dinosaur). But its form is based on the Camarasaurus, a dinosaur from the Jurassic period.
Ugobe’s engineers also developed their own software, called the Life OS (Life Form Operating System), which the company plans to use for future products. The company will make developer kits available so that others can create applications and uses for the Pleo. Its operating system was developed in the programming language known as Pawn, for developing multimedia and embedded systems that typically perform very specific functions.
Pleo has different personalities it will learn as it grows. It starts out as a hatchling when it is first purchased and it will tell its owner when it is hungry, happy, sad or fearful. The Pleo in Emeryville was happy and curious, sniffing around. It tugged Christopher’s finger, when he put his finger in Pleo’s mouth. The young robotic dinosaur had some traits of a small puppy.
“I don’t anthropomorphize robots,” said Calkins. “You really can’t help to do so with Pleo though. I find myself unconsciously petting him.”
Searching for the next Roomba
Pleo is likely to be a hit initially among Silicon Valley gear-heads and other early adopters of new technologies, the kinds of consumers who first bought iRobot Corp.’s (IRBT) Roomba vacuum cleaner, the first real consumer robot that sold more than 1 million units.
Shipping dates differ among retailers, but it will be a close call for any consumers who want a Pleo for Christmas. Amazon.com says on its Web site Pleo will be released on Dec. 18, Target.com states Dec. 15 and the SharperImage.com says that the first shipments will arrive Dec. 1.
With Pleo’s lower price, it will reach a much broader market than the Aibo, which was popular among people who could not have pets and gadget freaks. Aibo cult groups developed. One fan,
Bruce Binder in Rancho Cordova, Calif., still hosts yearly Aibo meets. “I think it’s an excellent robot for the money,” Binder said. He has ordered two Pleos. Ugobe, which now has more than 40 employees, is privately held and has gone far on its total venture funding of about $15 million. Christopher believes the company has huge potential, and that it can become a “significant revenue- producing company over the next 12 to 18 months.”
The company has other big plans beyond Pleo, but for now, Christopher is mum on what’s next. “Pleo…will open up eyes and ears about where this market can go,” he said.
Dow Jones Newswires