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Sunday, June 30, 2002

Technology

Sony AIBO robotic dog: 'Wow' factor lasts about 10 minutes
Gizmos

By Mike Langberg
Associated Press

Sony's newest version of the AIBO robotic dog at $599, although a marvel of design and engineering, isn't much fun to play with and shows how little progress has been made in creating artificial intelligence that even remotely resembles a real living creature.

AIBO (www.us.aibo.com) is something of a media hound, basking in the spotlight when first introduced in May 1999 at a Great Dane-like price of $2,500, because it was the first such creation to come from a company with Sony's credibility and because it could mimic many movements of a real canine.

Publicity didn't translate into huge sales -- no surprise, given the cost -- but Sony has kept plugging away. Newer models offer more features at lower prices, culminating with the model ERS-31L, introduced in early June at one-fourth the cost of the original AIBO model ERS-110.

The ERS-110, to put it in doggy terms, has been put to sleep after leaving a litter of descendants. In addition to the 31L, there are the high-end models ERS-210 at $1,299 and ERS-220 at $1,499, which can communicate through a home wireless computer network. The more affordable ERS-311 and ERS312 at $849 are physically identical to the 31L, but offer somewhat cuter facial expressions.

The 31L, which I'll just call AIBO from here on and assume is a ''he,'' is available only through the AIBO Web site and at Sony's three company-owned stores in the United States, located in New York, Chicago and San Francisco. A three-pound plastic pup resembling a caramel-colored bulldog, AIBO stands 9 inches high, 11 inches long and 7 inches wide. He runs for 2 hours on a rechargeable battery, which powers 15 internal motors to move his fully jointed legs, neck and head.

Out of the box, AIBO has no soul and won't do much besides sit up. Owners need separate software, packaged on Sony's chewing-gumsized Memory Stick data cards, to endow AIBO with a personality; the 31L comes with one such program called the AIBO Pal Special Edition.

Slide the Memory Stick into a slot hidden in AIBO's belly and he's ready to play.

All of the current AIBO models are built around speech recognition, and Sony claims they can understand 75 words. Most of them are simple commands -- ''Sit down,'' ''Stand up,'' ''Go forward,'' and so on. Others are more confusing -- you're supposed to say ''Thank you'' to AIBO reward him when he's completed a command correctly.

The AIBO 31L navigates through a distance sensor in his nose, so he can supposedly avoid bumping into people or fixed objects.

AIBO also plays games. He can ''dance'' by moving rhythmically to music that comes out of a speaker in his chest, parrots tunes sung by his owner and chases a special pink plastic ball included in his box. There's also a digital camera that looks out through a hole in AIBO's mouth, although the resolution is so low -- just one-tenth of a megapixel -- that pictures are barely viewable.

And AIBO has a personality. He is happy when humans play with him, and becomes sad when ignored. These emotions are shown by a small dome light on top of AIBO's head, which flashes green when he is happy, orange when he is angry and blue when he is sad. The dome light also emits one blink of white light when AIBO receives a command.

In a weak attempt at mirroring the behavior of a real dog, AIBO doesn't always respond to commands and will only perform some tricks after spending time with its owner.

This is where AIBO becomes a dog in the worst sense of the word.

The biggest problem is that AIBO's speech recognition doesn't always work. Buried in the fine print of the AIBO Pal Special Edition software is a note stating ''it is not easy for AIBO to understand you when it makes sounds or moves ... Even though AIBO's (dome) light (flashes) white, it may misunderstand a word you said or it may not act as instructed.''

Since AIBO is almost always moving or making sound, I found it hard to get a word in edgewise during several hours of play spread over a week. When AIBO didn't respond to my instructions, which happened frequently, I couldn't tell if this was because he didn't understand me or because he was in a snit. It was downright creepy when AIBO was slowly marching toward me and ignoring my order to ''Stop!''

AIBO has a big ''wow'' factor for the first 10 minutes after you meet him. It's a hoot to see his little brown body wobbling across the floor, and it's a treat the first time he sits on command.

But the communication difficulties make AIBO a bore beyond that brief honeymoon. After several ignored commands, AIBO lost interest for me. I didn't enjoy playing with an interactive toy when I could never be sure if we were actually interacting.

Sony needs to fix this massive flaw if AIBO is ever going to be anything more than a gimmick. The most obvious solution would be for AIBO to acquire a cute little doggie voice that repeats back any commands it receives, and whether it intended to obey. So it could reply ''Lie down -- yes,'' or ''Lie down -- no'' when you spoke the words ''Lie down.''

I encountered several other problems with AIBO that, while not huge, are still unexpected from a company with Sony's reputation for attention to detail. Among them:

AIBO's distance sensor wasn't perfect. He repeatedly bumped into a narrow chair leg because it wasn't positioned directly in front of his nose sensor, scratching one side of his head. And he crawled on top of his plastic ball, which is just big enough to get stuck under his belly and render him incapable of moving forward.

--AIBO doesn't fit easily into his charging stand, and a magnetic plug for attaching him to his AC charger keeps falling off. His charging indicator light goes out when he's fully charged, making it hard to know if the charging light is dark because the AC line isn't properly connected or because he's done recharging.

Sony is apparently too tightfisted to hire an instruction-manual editor whose first language is English. Many passages are so poorly translated from Japanese that it's hard to understand. One sample: ''If AIBO collects its strength to try to get up hard, it misunderstands that your hand is caught between its leg or neck joints, and loosens them -- that is, Jam condition.''

For all these reasons, I wouldn't recommend AIBO to anyone. I do hope Sony keeps trying, however. They've got enough good technology behind AIBO to create something amazing with a few more years of effort.

I should note that while Sony is alone in selling a high-end robotic dog, the field is crowded with cheaper canines selling for under $100. These bargain beagles do much less than AIBO, but might provide a few hours of amusement for a child or pre-teen. The best known supplier is the Tiger Electronics subsidiary of Hasbro (www.tigertoys.com) with the $99 i-Cybie and the $25 Poo-Chi.

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