The scoop: Pleo, by Ugobe, about US$350
What it is: It would be easy to call Pleo a robotic dinosaur toy, but that's unfair to both Ugobe, Pleo's maker, and to Pleo itself. Ugobe considers Pleo, the representation of a 1-week-old Camarasaurus dinosaur from the Jurassic period, a new "life form." From the start, Pleo was designed to incorporate all the traits of "autonomous life" -- Pleo doesn't just walk around and make noises at its owner, he (or she) is capable of expressing joy, aggression, anger, even fear, depending on the actions of the owner or as a reaction to its environment.
From a technical standpoint, Pleo is impressive. Each Pleo runs off two 32-bit microprocessors for its central and image processing, and four 8-bit subprocessors for motor control. The dinosaur has 14 motors and more than 100 custom-designed gears for movement, two microphones, eight skin sensors, four foot switches, 14 force-feedback sensors, and an infrared and camera-based vision system that lets Pleo detect objects and colors. In addition, Pleo includes a mini-USB port and SD card slot, which let the owner download online software updates, as well as add programs that let Pleo do more-specific activities. Pleo has a proprietary, rechargeable battery pack that's easy to install and recharge (our review unit came with two battery packs, but we're not sure whether regular consumers get the same number).
Why it's cool: Forget about the technical specs -- the real joy in Pleo is the emotional bond it creates with the user. When we showed our Pleo to staff members, it was amazing to see the different reactions that the dinosaur would elicit. For the most part, female staff members wanted to touch, embrace and generally nurture the little dinosaur. Most initial reactions from the women were, "Oh, he's so cute!" and similar statements; they immediately forgot that Pleo is a machine and treated it like a puppy or other young animal (some even treated it like a newborn baby). For most of the men, interest in Pleo was about the technical side of things -- how many sensors, motors, battery life, and applications -- "What tricks can it do?" and so forth.
That's not to say the men didn't get an emotional kick out of Pleo. Whenever Pleo was able to do something interesting (such as walk to the edge of the table without falling off), the men were just as impressed as the women. Ugobe is promising additional software updates and downloads that allow Pleo to learn more things and "grow," and that will interest the men.
Some caveats: At US$350, Pleo is not designed to be a toy for young children. It's easy to lump Pleo in with other robotic toys (such as the excellent RoboPanda from Wowwee), but that would be a mistake. Compared with Sony's Aibo robotic dog from a few years ago, which cost at least US$1,000, Pleo is a relative bargain.
My other concern has to do with long-term interest in Pleo. After you've engaged with Pleo and he's learned to walk around, it seems as if that's all there is. It's possible that Pleo will grow and learn more things, but that will come with additional software. So, it's possible that many users could get bored with Pleo, unless they're trying to impress co-workers or friends.
Grade: 5 stars (out of five)