There’s nothing more awesome than a dinosaur, unless that dinosaur is also a robot. Last October, we introduced you to Pleo rb (reborn) by Innvo Labs, the second incarnation of the cuddly Camarasaurus. As previously reported, Pleo now boasts a voice recognition system, an internal clock, and temperature sensors, all for $469. In the following CES 2011 interview by BotJunkie, Innvo Labs CEO Derek Dotson elaborates on Pleo’s new qualities and discusses some possible features of future versions of the robo-companion. While Pleo won't replace your favorite pet anytime soon, Pleo can still provide hours of dinosaur diversion.
At the beginning of the video, Mr. Dotson touches on the Pleo's personality dynamics (0:44). Pleo comes with innate mood and behavioral settings, but these are open to influence, depending on how you treat Pleo in the “hatchling stage.” Forgetting to feed Pleo, refusing to play with it, or repeatedly hanging it by its tail can lead to a more grumpy robo-pet, even if it’s programmed with a sunny disposition. This “hatchling stage” seems to be modeled after the critical period, an early window of impressionability in animals during post-natal brain development. This is an older feature found in the first version of Pleo, but it is still an intriguing example of robots mimicking biological concepts.
At 1:25, the interview begins to focus on Pleo rb’s newer attributes. Mr. Dotson describes the most substantial upgrade, the voice recognition system. This is an entirely new means of interaction beyond the tactile interface of the older version. Place a special RFID, or “learning stone”, under its chin, and Pleo is ready for you to bestow it with a name (Mr. Dotson insists on calling him Marcus, but he looks more like a Little Foot to me). Using other learning stones, you can teach Pleo commands. Say, “Little Foot! Come to me!” and Pleo will waddle on over. Another learning stone even teaches Pleo how to sing. However, if the dino is in a foul mood or you’ve been treating him badly, he will ignore your orders, a behavior I find subtly disturbing. It’s reminiscent of a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey in which HAL, the spaceship's on board computer, refuses to acknowledge orders and eventually decides to murder the astronauts. With Pleo's adorable mannerisms, it's unimaginable that the dino would think of such things, but I would try to keep it happy to stay on the safe side.
Mr. Dotson outlines a wide range of other new traits that eerily resemble those of an actual pet. It has a built-in circadian rhythm, expressed as sleeping and getting hungry at regular intervals over a 24-hour cycle (3:26). Also, a temperature sensor creates additional interactive opportunities (4:45). If it’s in a hot environment, you will need to cool down the dino with an RFID chunk of ice; otherwise, it will start to get dizzy from heat exhaustion. On the other hand, Pleo will refuse ice and start to shiver in a cold environment, and it can even get sick if it stays cold for too long, requiring you to bring it back to health. Moreover, most electronics just stop working if you drop them enough, but Pleo actually starts to limp on his injured side and will withdraw a hurt leg if you touch it (5:16). The response is also graded, so more serious bodily insults will elicit more robust injury-related behaviors. If you get a Pleo, it would be in your best interest to take good care of it, as you would any other pet or piece of expensive electronic equipment.
Overall, Pleo's interactive potential make it a delightful step in the history of robotic pets . . . but Mr. Dotson doesn’t want to stop there. Innvo Labs actively gathers input from their customers, and if suggestions make economic sense, they may incorporate them into future versions. Mr. Dotson mentions the possibility of adding wireless capability (8:56) or transmitting video to a smartphone so Pleo owners can “see what Pleo sees.” I think another reasonable upgrade would be a simple facial expression recognition system to close the emotional interface feedback loop. This would give Pleo the ability to react to your mood. We could go on speculating, but no one really knows what other cool features Innvo Labs and its customers will dream up next.
In my opinion, it will be a while before robotic pets can match the companionship of their real-life counterparts or save us from cougars. However, as these toys become increasingly life-like and tailored to the emotional needs of their owners, we could see more people preferring customized, clean, and well-behaved robots over the traditional pet. Pair this trend with advanced human-like robots, and we could have bonafied robo-buddies or stand-in significant others on our hands, a disconcerting scenario indeed. Robo-pets in the same vein as Pleo could help us grasp the social consequences of humanoid robots by providing a glimpse of future human-robot relations.
While we wait for the true Pet 2.0, Pleo can still enrich our lives right now. For parents who have kids pleading for a dog or cat but are unsure if they're responsible enough, Pleo could be an excellent starter-pet to determine if they have the discipline to take care of a living animal. If the kids do get a pet, there's no need to throw Pleo away, because cats and robots get along just fine. Pleo could also be an alternative pet for kids with severe allergies. Furthermore, Pleo shares many capabilities with Paro, the robotic seal that brings joy to the elderly. At less than one-tenth the cost of Paro, Pleo could be a cheaper alternative for nursing homes that want to improve the quality of life of their residents.
With the bounty of good-will that Pleo brings us, it's troubling to think that Pleo almost became extinct when its former distributor filed for bankruptcy. Poor Pleo even became a popular target for robot abuse. Those were pretty dark days for our favorite robotic dino, but things are looking up. Currently, Pleo is flying off the shelves and won't be restocked in the U.S. and Hong Kong until April of this year. It appears that Pleos all over the world are finding a home.
I can't wait to see Pleo for myself when it becomes available again. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with dinosaurs and desperately hoped that I would one day get a chance to meet one. Don't get me wrong. I didn't yearn for the burning sensation of Dilophosaurus venom, but skateboarding on the wings of a Pterodactyl would be pretty sweet. You could imagine my disappointment when I found out that sequencing an entire dinosaur genome from blood in tree amber was a laughable proposition. While everyone’s raving about bringing mammoths back to life, I quietly despair, knowing my dream of a real-life dino-buddy will probably always be out of reach. However, Pleo offers some consolation. The unique personalities, doughy eyes, and impressionability make it the perfect dino-pet replacement. We may never have the real thing, but maybe Pleo is close enough.
[Image credit: Pleoworld]
[Video credit: Bot Junkie]