Blurring the line between life and technology.
Pleo (Personal Life Enhancing Organism) is a robot toy with a difference. Unlike the largely superficial Robo-Sapien range, it has been designed to behave as realistically as possible, with new robotics firm Ugobe attempting to blur the line between life and technology. The result is a unique creation that can almost be compared to a living, breathing pet. But is this actually a good thing? As you will see, we remain slightly unconvinced…
- It's the most advanced toy robot on the market (especially when it comes to believable AI behaviour)
- Price, battery life, it doesn't actually 'do' much on a surface-level
Pleo can be viewed as a major evolutionary step forward in toy robotics. Its artificial intelligence and advanced sensors make its competitors look prehistoric. However, we’re not convinced that Pleo will make for an enjoyable toy, particularly among youngsters who prefer flashy trick-laden gadgets. As such, its appeal will be limited to those who can appreciate the sophisticated AI.
Price$ 449.00 (AUD)
For its first robotic creation, Ugobe has gone for the rather unconventional choice of a baby dinosaur, rather than the cuddlier modern-day fuzzball you might expect. Apparently, it is modelled after a one-week old Camarasaurus, an herbivorous sauropod that lived in the Jurassic Period some 150 million years ago (thanks Wikipedia). We have a sneaking suspicion this decision was made to compensate for the robot’s sluggish movement, which would otherwise seem overly slow (i.e., dinosaurs are supposed to plod).
That’s not to say Pleo isn’t cute though. With his large blinking eyes, lazy smile and purring voice box, he reminded us of a reptilian Furby doll (not coincidentally, Ugobe’s founder helped to create both products). We have no doubts that Pleo’s appearance will be a big hit with kids and kids-at-heart: it’s the kind of toy even red-blooded males will want to stroke and hug.
But Pleo is much more than a cute looking toy. With 14 servo joints, 38 inbuilt sensors (which incorporate touch, tilt, sound and light), full quadrupedal movement and a comprehensive range of behaviours and emotions, it is easily the most sophisticated toy robot yet. In fact, ‘toy’ is probably a misleading word; it would better be described as a companion or pet (or as Ugobe puts it, ‘a machine with a soul’). This is made possible by Life OS: a complex platform of interacting tools and software systems that incorporates animation, sound, ‘attention’ (which determines Pleo’s interest level in sensory objects) and ‘drive’ (which decides what choices Pleo makes based on hunger, fatigue and other organic factors). In other words, Pleo is completely independent from its owner, which means you don’t get to control him with a remote control.
Despite all this clever engineering, there is no getting past the fact that Pleo is a robot. We were reminded of this fact every time he moved, due to the constant whir of mechanical parts. The level of realism is further hampered by Pleo’s brief battery life (you need to recharge him every 90 minutes), though to be fair, he does start to act sleepy whenever its time to remove the battery which is a nice touch. On another note, the foot-mounted sensors aren't particularly adept at detecting sheer drops, which means your 'machine with a soul' will happily trundle off to his doom unless you keep an eye on him. (Mind you, the same thing can be said about most baby animals.)
Despite these misgivings, we’d say Ugobe achieved its aim in creating a plausible pet. We were particularly impressed by the believable swish of his tail. It also freaked out cat out, which probably goes to prove something, although we’re not sure what.
So what does a ‘pet robot’ do exactly? Much like a regular pet, whatever it damn well feels like! This is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it helps to heighten the sense of realism, with no telltale repetition to spoil the organic illusion. One the other hand, it means Pleo rarely does what you want it to. (Even Ugobe couldn’t get it to follow its prompts during a media demonstration, and they built the damn thing.) Ironically, all this realism and unpredictability may be Pleo’s main downfall as a commercial product — much like a kitten or puppy, it mainly just stands around looking cute. By contrast, the WowWee Roboquad will break-dance to music at the press of a button. If you prefer robotic toys that do gimmicky tricks on command, you’d be better off looking elsewhere.
Our other main gripe with Pleo is the exorbitant price tag. At $449, it costs around the same amount as a Nintendo Wii console with multiple games and controllers. Whether it will offer the same level of entertainment, interactivity and longevity for you and your family is highly debatable. In conclusion, we’d have to say that Pleo is a remarkable technical achievement that fans of robotics and artificial intelligence will be highly impressed with. The average Joe, however, will simply wonder why it can’t do backflips.
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