Sony gets cute with new Aibo models

Sony Corp. unveiled a new version of its pet robot, Aibo, on Wednesday. In the 11 months since the company launched its previous model, Aibo has been given a face lift, improved speech recognition and a lower price.

The new Aibo, Sony's third and arguably cutest model yet, comes in two variations: the ivory-colored ERS-311, named "Latte," and the gray-colored ERS-312, called "Macaron." Modelled partly on a bear cub and partly on a puppy, each has its own personality, with Latte programmed to be adorable and Macaron to be mischievous, said Aki Shimazu, a spokeswoman for Sony.

The speech recognition function has been expanded to 70 words from 50 in the previous model and Aibo now has the ability to learn its own name and that of its owner.

In addition to words, Aibo will also be able to recognize special sounds, intended to be broadcast over television, the radio or Internet. The first application for this system, called Medialink, will be in a new Sony-sponsored animated cartoon. Called Piroppo, the cartoon will feature the two new Aibo cubs and run on Japan's Fuji Television Network weekly from Oct. 11 between 10:54 p.m. and 11 p.m., right before the main evening news.

Good news for prospective owners is that the new models are also the cheapest yet in the Aibo family. Sony said it will put them on sale in Japan from Sept. 22 priced at 98,000 yen (US$823), one-third lower than the previous generation, the ERS-210, which sold for 150,000 yen -- and much cheaper than the first-generation ERS-110 that was priced at 250,000 yen.

The lower prices are part of a company strategy to increase ownership by extending the range at both the low- and high-end. The large number of enquiries received after Aibo played a leading role in a recent Janet Jackson music video convinced Sony that a large market exists among teens if the price can be lowered to a suitable level, Yoshinao Kambe, assistant manager of international marketing at Sony's Entertainment Robot Company division, said in a recent interview with IDG News Service. The price tag of the new models may still mean they remain out of the hands of all but the wealthiest teens, but Sony is going for a different audience. "They are aimed at women in their 20s and 30s," said Shimazu. "We wanted to widen the market segment."

The robots will also go on sale overseas. Sony is planning to start taking orders in the U.S. and Europe in October, where they will carry respective price tags of US$850 and 980 euros. The U.S. and European versions will not have the special personalities, said Shimazu.

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