When I was a kid, my parents bought me my first robot. Except this was in the early 70s, so it wasn’t a real robot – it was a fuzzy effigy, a mechanized kitten thing. The kitten was tethered by co-joined wires to a long battery box which also served as a remote control. It could walk forward…stop…walk forward…stop; it might have even meowed, too – but I honestly don’t remember. Anyway you get the idea; the kitten wasn’t very exciting, and it certainly didn’t replicate the fun of owning a real cat. In other words, the kitten reacted but it did not interact. It bore no true resemblance to a real cat. It was supposed to be neat because it was a robot, but that’s really all that was neat about it.
Bear in mind the kitten was given to me not long after the “incident” when I had convinced my brother that he wanted to trade his incredibly cool Christmas robot (the one that showed a mini-movie of things blowing up on its stomach screen complete with sound effects) for some doll that I had received, so perhaps there was some parental bait and switch going on there.
Now granted, Mark’s robot didn’t interact, either. But it at least looked like a robot was supposed to look, which made all its other shortcomings moot. Man, I wish I still had my brother’s robot…for so many reasons.
But I digress.
A few decades passed, and toys got a lot more sophisticated. Fast forward to the late 90s: remember the Furby? Yeah, I bought one of those, too. Mine was brown and white, and it looked like Gizmo from Gremlins. What I liked about that little guy, beyond the fact that it was under $50, was that it was cute, it didn’t look like a creepy pet effigy, it was hackable, and if you put a couple of them together they would interact via their infrared ports. Granted, Furbies didn’t directly interact with humans (even though some people swore theirs did), so they weren’t quite as far up on the robotic evolutionary chain as I wanted. But they were definitely a step in the right direction, and for $35 I had no reason to complain.
In 2001, I got to review a Sony Aibo. At the time, this robot was retailing for $1500. It was programmable, interactive, and the closest thing to a true robotic pet that had ever been seen, at least by me. It also looked like a schizophrenic cross between a dog and a cat. Aibo’s plastic body was not conducive to cuddling or petting, and I had trouble getting past the fact that it was trying to look like a mash-up of real animals…but not.
See, here is my thing: I know what dogs and cats look like, act like, and feel like. So if you give me a robot made to resemble a dog or a cat, it will come with certain built-in expectations. These types of expectations may not apply to anyone but me, but they will still be there, and I won’t be able to get past them. These pet-type robots are too close to the animals they are meant to mimic, and yet they generally fall very short of the experience of owning an actual dog or cat. In another example of how hard I am to please, if the robot looks too similar to the animal it is meant to mimic, I will simply find it creepy. Witness the Yume Niko Smile; need I say more?
The answer then? Give me a robotic toy that is not based on an animal with which I am familiar. Make it a baby, so it’s cute. Make it lovable. Make it receptive to touch. Make it interactive. Make it programmable. Make it responsive. Make me want to pet it, hold it, touch it. Make it…
…a baby dinosaur named Pleo.
As many of you will recall, I first really became aware of thePleo on the plane ride home from CES 2007. I was reading a WIRED article about Pleo and its creator Caleb Chung, and from then on I knew I had to get my hands on one. It came as no surprise to me that Pleo’s creator was also one of the Furby’s creators, in fact it made perfect sense: here was a guy who got it, who got me: I don’t want a robotic dog or cat because it is too easy to compare a robot fashioned after a common house pet to the real thing. In my eyes, basing a robot on a current living being would be an automatic recipe for failure, because let’s face it – at least in the foreseeable future robotic replicas will always fall far short of the original, inviting unfair comparisons.
So instead of opening that can of worms, it would make more sense to give people like me a robot with petlike qualities, but based on an animal that doesn’t come with built-in expectations because we have never actually seen one. For that reason, using a baby dinosaur was brilliant. As I said after reading the article, “Pleo is cuddly, cute, and as life-like as an extinct species could possibly be.”
Granted, the road from the WIRED article to the Pleo review unit I received was not without its bumps: Pleo’s appearance has slightly changed, he wound up costing a bit more than expected, he started shipping a bit later than expected, and after Wal-Mart canceled my order I was just about ready to blow the little guy off. Pleo had reached that dreaded point which I sometimes hit: where I have waited so long to get something, that I have just about lost interest.
I had put in a request for a review unit early last year, but had no illusions that I would be among the first to get one – assuming there were even going to be units available to send out. So I was surprised when just before it was time to leave for CES, I received an email offering me two weeks with one. Of course my interest was renewed, but I wanted to wait until after CES so that I could be sure I had a fair amount of time with the robot. Unfortunately he arrived while I was trying to get over the CES Flu, and so he sat in his box for almost a week.
Last week I finally got him unboxed, and in the week since then I have grown quite fond of the little fella. But as usual, I am getting way ahead of myself. Let’s talk about what’s in the box, and the experience of getting to know a baby Pleosaur…
Included in Pleo’s box are a companion guide, a training leaf, authenticity ID Card, a NiMH replaceable and rechargeable battery pack, an AC charger and an adapter. My Pleo came with two battery packs, but that may be because he was a review version and not necessarily a retail version.
Pleo is “modeled on a one-week-old Camarasaurus dinosaur.” According to the, he is “designed to mimic life which means Pleo thinks and acts independently, just like a real animal.” Suitable for ages 8 and up, Pleo won’t grow larger, but he will progress through “three different Life Stages. When first awakened, Pleo is a hatchling. As you interact together, Pleo transitions through an infant stage to become a juvenile dinosaur.”
Here’s a bit more information on those stages:
PLEO IS BORN
The initial birthing stage lasts 5 to 10 minutes depending on your interaction with Pleo. In this stage Pleo opens his eyes to both you and the world for the very first time, and he starts to acclimate to his environment. In this stage of Pleo’s development he is very slow, and his sensors are not very responsive. The more you pet and nurture Pleo in this stage the faster he will develop and emerge as a more confident Pleo. Pleo is done “hatching” when he is fully awake and stands up on all four feet.
After Pleo is born, he is in his “Hatchling” life stage for the remainder of his first charge cycle (about forty-five minutes). As a Hatchling, Pleo’s basic behavioral drives will start to kick-in. He’ll ask to be fed, he’ll start to walk and explore his environment, take short naps like a baby, and he’ll start to exhibit a wider range of emotions. He will begin to experiment with new sounds he can make. This is a fun time, when Pleo is extra “talkative” as he learns to express himself and his feelings.
Pleo must be charged fully a second time before beginning his next life stage – Juvenile. The Juvenile stage represents Pleo’s entry into childhood where his full range of movement and behaviors will be exhibited.
Pleo measures 21? long from the top of his nose to the end of his 6.5? tail. He stands about 7? tall from the bottom of his rear legs to the middle of his rear haunch, and his rear feet span 6?; with his battery pack inserted, he weighs 3 pounds 11 ounces.
Pleo has skin made of “custom-formulated soft thermoplastic material,” which basically feels like soft rubber. While it isn’t warm and furry like a live pet’s hide might be, it is pleasant enough to stroke. And believe me, you will want to stroke your Pleo, because he will respond by cooing, trilling, and making other happy noises. Just tell yourself that he is a cold-blooded reptile, and then it won’t bother you quite so much that he isn’t warm.
The one downside to Pleo’s soft skin is that I found it to be a cat hair magnet.
On Pleo’s nose, there are three glass circles: the largest is the color camera, and the two smaller are the infrared receiver and transmitter. According to the FAQ, “Pleo will be able to detect objects and edges, depending on the circumstances.” I am sure that this ability is either made possible or at least greatly aided by the camera in his nose.
This is a photo of the Pleo Companion Guide’s inside cover, which shows the locations of Pleo’s many sensors. He also has binaural microphones built into each cheek (or where his ears would be), so that “Pleo will be able to hear a human voice when he is still and it is quiet.” The location of Pleo’s front speaker (inside his mouth) makes it appear as if his noises are coming from the correct location. He also has a rear speaker at his lower back…although one might be afraid to guess what type sounds might come from a speaker with such placement. Just kidding, Pleo isn’t rude like that.
If you have the stomach for it, you can see a dissected Pleo on iFixit. Even though the autopsied Pleo is disturbing, seeing all of the wonderous little robotic parts that came together to make him work is quite fascinating.
Pleo has expressive blue eyes, with articulated lids. When he is sleeping, his lids close; when he is being making noises or otherwise interacting, the lids will blink appropriately.
Pleo’s belly is where his few user controls are located. From left to right, which is actually from neck to tail, there are three clusters. The first cluster has Pleo’s on / off slider. The plug and connector shown in this picture are not shown in the user manual (nor are they shown in the ), so I suspect that they are not present on the typical retail version.
In the center is the NiMH battery pack, which inserts and locks with a twist of the flipping tab. On the end, there is an SD slot, a mini USB port for connecting to a PC, and the “Pleo” button. The Pleo button works like this: pressing it once will mute him, pressing twice will make his noises soft, pressing a third time will return Pleo’s voice to normal, and holding the button for 10 seconds and turning him off will place him in the “Packaging / Storage Position”.
Pleo’s software can be updated, upgraded, hacked, improved, you name it – and there is already a thriving community of developers doing just that. This review would be incomplete if I didn’t mention the valuable resources available from Gear Diary friend Robert Oschler’s site, Robots Rule. Here you can watch video’s of Robert’s three Pleos in action as well as access his . On the official Pleo site there is also a very active , as well as an . This is where you can also find which can be placed on an SD card and then run directly on the Pleo.
Back on topic!
Here is a shot of the battery pack…
…and here it is in the charger. When the battery needs charging, the word Pleo will glow red on the battery charger; it will glow green once charging is complete. A full charge takes approximately 4 hours.
The battery is released from the charger by pressing the button on its back; you’ll be tempted to just pop it out, but it will not cooperate. Take your time and press the button.
Almost every bit of Pleo’s body is covered in sensors and other ways to gather feedback regarding what is happening to him or where he is. For instance each one of his feet has a touch sensor, which helps him tell if he is on the ground or being held in the air.
Here’s a shot inside Pleo’s mouth and the infrared interruptor – he was cooing at the time.
Perhaps you are wondering what you can do with an interactive baby dinosaur, after you have petted him a few times and heard him make noises. Would you ever ask the same thing about a puppy? Of course not. But since Pleo is a newer Life Form, Ugobe understands that not everyone will know what he is capable of doing. That’s why there is a whole list of ways you can interact with your baby,.
Of course, the beauty of the Pleo is that he (or she) will develop his (or her) own personality through the way you interact with him (or her).
Speaking of interaction, this is Pleo’s training leaf…
nice binary code on the leaf, would anyone care to translate?
…which he will chomp on when hungry – making the appropriate nom nom nom sounds, or which he’ll tote around and possibly play tug-of-war with. Mine never seemed to want to play, though.
The best part of course, is watching and experiencing how Pleo behaves and how he interacts with you as well as the family pets. Pleo can be sassy…giving the cocky over the shoulder glance as he heads off into trouble.
He is spied by Avah…who questions the appearance of this alternate Life Form.
Avah attempts nonchalance, which is fine as long as Pleo stays on his side of the room. She is not amused by his dog-like panting nor is she beguiled by his wagging tail…
…but wait! What is this? Pleo is making noises and moving towards Avah.
“Best keep your distance, buddy” she seems to be saying.
He is not listening…
Unperturbed, the baby Pleosaur makes his way to Avah…
…at which point he starts to sing her a song.
Avah is not amused.
She offers Pleo a swift swat for invading her space.
“Avah!” I say…
And both of them turn to look. Awwwww…
Avah pats Pleo softly to let me know that all is well.
Perhaps the neatest thing about Pleo is how easy it is to forget that he is “just a toy”. I was on the phone the other night with him in my lap, and I found myself instinctively rubbing his back. I say instinctively because Pleo was giving me feedback based on the rubbing. He would nuzzle against me, wrap his tail against my leg, and make appropriate cooing sounds as I rubbed. If I stopped, he would make urgent sounds and head movements, letting me know that he expected the rubbing to start again. It was cute, and very easy to forget that I was rubbing a robot. I could honestly see how he would be a good pet replacement for someone who absolutely can’t have a live animal. It would be very easy to experience transference.
Psssst…want to see Pleo singing?
But alas, all is not perfect. Like so many battery-powered devices, Pleo is a victim to shorter than optimal battery life. The fact that there is no way to tell when his battery is running low, other than that he may slow down a bit and then eventually fall asleep, makes it difficult to tell if he is just resting or if his battery is dead. I would really like to see some sort of indicator – even if just a slowly flashing LED somewhere. When you are only giving Pleo minimal attention, he can be switched off to save battery life. When you do that, his charge will last for days. But why leave him off? I think a near perfect solution might be if Pleo had an inductive charger, and could make his way to it when his battery was getting low. Perhaps in a future version?
There are some (Jerry!) who will say that Pleo doesn’t do enough to earn his purchase price, and maybe to a point that is true. But when I remember what the Aibo did (and didn’t do), and what it was (and wasn’t) capable of, versus what the Pleo does and is capable of – at roughly 1/4 the price, I have to say that if you ever wanted a robotic pet but were put off by the Aibo’s price – now is the time to give in to the craving.
Do it, Do it, Do it!
This is the robotic toy that I would have loved to have when I was a kid; this is the robotic toy that I want now as an adult. Considering the fact that Pleo can only continue to improve, it is safe to say that that the future of robotic toys looks very promising.
Pleo is availableas well as from other retail centers on and off line.
What I Like: He’s cute, he’s cuddly, he’s affectionate, he’s trainable, he’s interactive, and he’s easy to maintain
What Needs Improvement: Pleo truly needs a way to indicate when his battery is running low; plus the battery only lasts for about an hour and a half of solid play