Sony unveils latest Aibo robot

Sony Corp. unwrapped its latest Aibo entertainment robot on Wednesday, a futuristic-looking model that looks more like a cheap knock-off of previous versions than the cuter, cuddlier models it had designed so far.

Below the neck, the new model -- the ERS-220 -- bares a resemblance to Sony's first edition Aibo, the ERS-110, and its successor, the ERS-210, but from the neck up things are drastically different. Aibo's new head, complete with 21 flashing lights and a retractable headlight, makes the new model a lot more robot-like than pet-like.

"That's really what the Aibo is, a robot and not a puppy dog or a cat," said Jon Piazza, a spokesman for Sony Electronics Inc. "The general public thought of (Aibo) as a replacement for a pet and it really never was intended as that."

Hardware-wise, the other main changes beyond the style are in the number of joints. The new Aibo has no moveable ears or a tail and so offers 16 degrees of freedom compared to 20 on the previous model.

On the software side, Sony has updated the Aibo system software to allow for a 75-word vocabulary and enhanced photo-taking capability. A new package, Aibo Step, allows users to change the noise the robot makes when it walks and a second new package, Aibo Boost, allows the robot to become excited, curious or alert when communication with its owner goes well.

Like the ERS-210, the ERS-220 is built around a modular design in which the head and legs clip onto a central body which includes all of the control circuitry and main battery unit. For this reason, owners of the ERS-210 will be able to buy a kit of new body parts that can be attached to the central unit of their Aibo to transform it into the new version. That kit will be available in December, said Piazza.

The robot-like form of the ERS-220 is in sharp contrast to the rounder, cuter styling of Latte and Macaron, which were announced in September and were until Wednesday the two newest members of the Aibo family. Those robots are Sony's first attempt at cracking the young, working-woman market and are modeled after bear cubs to appeal to women in their twenties, said the company. The ERS-220 model will be available this month in the U.S. and Sony is already accepting advance orders on its Web site. Like the previous model, the new version costs US$1,500. Sony is due to announce sales plans for other regions at a Tokyo press conference to be held on Thursday.

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