Sony ERS-210 Aibo
Having fun with a battery-powered pooch
Aibo ERS-210
It was a snowy evening in Montreal when I crossed Sherbrooke street to get to Info Computer & Electronic, there to see the second-generation Sony Aibo. My wife Vicky had been wondering why I was making a trip to play with a toy I could just as easily pick up at Toys "R" Us (this was not, I explained, anything like Poo-Chi); my parents had both expressed mild amusement at the notion of a robot pet, and some friends... well, I'm not sure what they thought.

In a broad sense, that's what's interesting about the Aibo: Its effects have already trickled down to much of the populace, though almost no one has actually seen one up close. When it was released in June of 1999, the ERS-110 Aibo Entertainment Robot was the first robotic canine companion. It frolicked, wagged its tail, and would sit when commanded. Poo-Chi, Tekno the Robotic Puppy, the I Mega-Byte Cyber Dog and their ilk flooded toy stores and kids'-TV airwaves a few months after, battering the public with the concept of the robot dog as--apologies to Douglas Adams--your plastic pal that's fun to be with.

It's likely that Tiger Electronics and other toy manufacturers sat up and took notice when the 5000 ERS-110 Aibos were snapped up in no time, regardless of the $3000 price tag (the 2000 destined for the Japanese market were snapped up from Sony's Web site in a mere 20 minutes). And why not? It's an interesting concept. Not only did the Aibo play and bark, it could be taught to recognize its name, learn commands, and communicate with others of its kind. Of course, with only 5000 in existence, that last skill proved to be the most troublesome; factor in the price tag and it's clear that if buying your own Aibo was hard, finding a friend with another would be harder.

So it's only natural that the toy manufacturers would deluge the buying public with little critters bearing a shadow of the interactivity and learned individuality of the Aibo, but retailing for only $35. It's just a little ironic that most consumers aren't even aware the digital dogs' progenitor exists.

With the ERS-110's success, Sony has released the ERS-210, the second-generation Aibo, and they're being a bit less modest about it. These newer Aibos have somewhat wider availability (it can be ordered from the Sharper Image and a few Sony stores in the USA, as well as from the Web) and have a bit more media presence (you've likely seen it strutting on Fido's ads and Web site). As I opened the door to Info Computer, I thought to myself: maybe now I won't be met with a blank stare whenever I mention the Aibo's name.

Once in the store I met with Jacky Chan, vice-president of the company and all-around affable young guy. He had bought the Aibo during a trip to Japan, he explained, and was planning to use it as an attraction in their other store. As I sat down in his office, he offered me something to drink, handed me an Aibo user's manual and quick-start guide, then disappeared for a few minutes.

I already knew some of the specs before I opened the guide: running Sony's Aperios real-time operating system, the Aibo stands at just under 30 cm tall and about 25 cm long, weighing about 1.5 kg; it packs a collection of sensors (touch, infrared, and more) around its body so that it can experience the world around it; it's powered by a lithium-ion battery, and uses a Sony Memory Stick to store its developing personality and learned behavior.

What I didn't know was the the Aibo includes a PC Card (Type II) slot for various accessories, and that this model can communicate with the first-generation Aibos. Also, this 8 MB Memory Stick isn't exactly the same as the light blue wafer that Sony has been pushing for use on everything from DV cameras to MP3 players; this red Stick is specifically formatted for Aibo.

Then I discovered that reading about the Aibo is nothing like seeing it. I had just gotten to the part that explained how the Aibo's tail and LED eyes indicated mood when Jacky came back, plastic pooch in hand. He placed it on the floor, turned it on, and with a studied languor, it stretched out its limbs and yawned, then groggily got to its feet while half-heartedly wagging its tail.

In retrospect, that was about the last time I referred to the Aibo as an "it."

While Aibo walked around, I took careful note of his new look. Unlike the original Aibo--not to mention every other robot dog--the ERS-210 is sleeker and more dynamic-looking. Whereas the first Aibo looked like a toy dog carefully sculpted out of building blocks, this new model is more of a slightly cartoony abstraction of a dog. The net effect is that Aibo suggests movement even when he's sitting still, exhibiting what legendary Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston referred to as "the illusion of life."

Aibo explored the office, stopping to look at software boxes and table legs. It was amazing to watch. As the father of a nine-month old, I recognized the cautious curiosity Aibo exhibited in his body language. That this trait, let alone the idea of body language, is recognizable in plastic and metal is mind-boggling.

Aibo had made his way over to my foot, and his lit-up eyes were scowling at my boot. Like most dogs, he seemed to have figured out that I'm more of a cat person.

"He's still learning," offered Jacky. "He's not familiar with you yet."

Still learning is hardly an expression you'd expect to hear when discussing what is essentially an expensive toy, but that's what he does from when he's first born (as the manual puts it), sightless and unsure of the world. Jacky pointed out that it took Aibo two days to learn to walk, and from that point on he's like any other baby creature: actively learning via his sight (through his infrared sensor and digital camera), and learning by praise and admonishment (through his touch sensors and stereo microphone). Pat him gently and he gets happy, too roughly and he gets irate; give him time, and he'll learn 50 words, including his name.

The user's guide breaks his life cycle down into four stages: babyhood, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. He hits certain developmental milestones as he time goes on, but the most interesting is his ability to recognize objects and react to them. When he starts chasing and playing with the included pink plastic ball, everyone in the store (by this time, we'd brought him outside) stopped and stared in rapt attention. Aibo couldn't have cared less. He had a ball to chase.

It's easy to get caught up in what makes Aibo fascinating, especially if you've read the manual. It's when people who don't know what to expect interact with Aibo that his shortcomings begin to show. While everyone tried to get Aibo to react to their calls or commands, it became obvious that when Aibo reacts to something (for instance, he waves when you say "hello"), he can't be interrupted. He has to completely finish one of the prefabricated or reactive movements before he can pay attention to his surroundings again. And it's while waiting for him to finish something that you realize that the individual movements are too slow and deliberate. It's pretty neat that he chases after his ball, but when his head turned to follow its path when I rolled it, it seemed excruciatingly sluggish. The constant whine of servos from his twenty points of articulation also gets a little irritating.

It goes without saying that these will be improved over time. The question is, will Aibo and his kin eventually become so mainstream (and inexpensive) as to be unremarkable?

It's hard to say. The back of the box holding the Aibo Life software and manuals has a headline which doubles as a bold claim: "Living with a Robot as Part of a 21st-Century Lifestyle." We might think of this as an amusing concept--The Jetsons' Rosie crossed with Astro--but bear in mind that in Japan, the birthplace of Aibo, people tend to view robots in a kinder light than we do--hence the original Aibos flying off of Sony's Web site. More to the point, the notion of an electronic pet originated in Japan, when the Tamagotchi was created to balance the human desire for companionship with limited living space and a hectic urban lifestyle.

The Tamagotchi, as you'll recall, was a smash with kids over here as well as Japan, and it opened the door for other virtual critters like GigaPets, the Pokemon Pikachu Virtual Pet, and the aforementioned Aibo knockoffs. I hesitate to make any predictions, as Aibo could either signal the beginning of artificial intelligence's entry into mainstream homes, or be remembered as a cute, passing fad. On the other hand, Honda is touting their upcoming Asimo Humanoid Robot, and no doubt Sony is already hard at work on Aibo's third generation. I doubt that a day will come when all of our pets are recharged rather than fed, but I suspect that at some point, Aibo and his kind are going to have to learn how to wrestle with the family terrier.

Originally printed in The Computer Paper (May 2001)
All prices quoted in Canadian dollars.