Sony planning to license Aibo

With worldwide sales about to pass the 100,000 unit mark, Sony Corp. is planning to boost its pet robot business by launching a range of new Aibo robots at different prices and also by licensing the basic hardware and software specifications to other companies. Sony hopes the moves will result in cheaper prices for consumers and more people buying Aibo robots.

New models of Aibo from Sony are expected to appear either later this year or next year and the company has already started talking to software developers with a view to licensing the Aibo architecture so that developers can produce their own controller software, said Yoshinao Kambe, assistant manager of international marketing at Sony's Entertainment Robot Company division in an interview.

The plans, which represent a major push by Sony to turn its entertainment robot business into a profitable enterprise, were made possible by a basic design change implemented when Sony upgraded Aibo in October 2000, the first since Sony launched Aibo in May 1999.

From the outside the differences looked largely cosmetic -- the new robot was based on a baby lion -- and even the technical differences seemed like largely gadget-level upgrades, such as the ability to take snapshots with its built-in digital still camera. However, the launch of the robot, the ERS-210, signified a much more important change that could not be seen from the outside.

The internal structure of the robot was redesigned so that the heart of the machine was encased in a black plastic box. This box, much like the body and brains of a human all rolled into one, was the core of Aibo and contained its central processor, main memory, battery and other key devices. The legs, head and tail that gave Aibo its unique and cute look were simply clipped onto the core.

The switch to such modular construction lies at the heart of Sony's robot strategy. The plastic control box forms a common heart at the center of future products, and robots will differ by the parts that are clipped onto the box.

"Based on (the central core) anybody outside the company has a chance to create their own shape of robot," Kambe said. "If they want to have a monkey or pig, they can make it based on our basic standard and application."

The company has yet to sign any hardware licensing agreements with other companies, but with the central core unit as a base, building extra parts such as legs or heads would be easy, Kambe said.

Plans to license the Aibo control software specification are at a more advanced stage. Sony is already in talks with a number of game software developers to license its Open-R software architecture, Kambe said. Open-R was developed by Sony for use in Aibo and both the original and second generation robots incorporate the system.

The first software applications written by third-party developers for Aibo are likely to be game-based, allowing Aibo to perform certain tricks or games, and are expected on the market next year.

"In the future, we are dreaming about several manufacturers making their own shape of hardware (legs and parts) and then gaming companies releasing new types of software," Kambe said. "For this business to be really successful, we need several kinds of heads and legs."

For Sony, the switch to a modular structure based on a central control core means a simplified manufacturing process and the benefits of larger-scale production of the core controller. Aibo owners will also benefit from the ability to change their pet's appearance for minimal cost, for example, by purchasing a new head, without having to buy a completely new robot.

Sony itself is also planning to put on sale new robots aimed at different market segments. At present the company's typical customers are 30-something males, although new Aibo models are aimed at expanding the customer base.

The company is looking both at new top-end models with extra features and low-end models designed for teens. Aibo's role in a Janet Jackson music video last year and the large number of inquiries that followed has already proved to Sony that it has a large potential market among young people if only the price were right, Kambe said. Aibo currently sells for 150,000 yen (US$1,225) -- well out of the price range of most teens.

"If we release a low-budget model it will definitely extend Aibo to the kids and teenage market," Kambe said. "They really like it, but it is still too expensive. Usually in the U.S., the (price) limitation (for a teen) is $200 to $300. We were thinking about (that price), but it's quite impossible -- this is a robot."

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