The New Animatronic Dinosaur Robot from Ugobe

Written on Thursday, March 13, 2008 by emde


The New Animatronic Dinosaur Robot from Ugobe

Can you love an animatronic dinosaur? There are lots of things we get first in Asia, but there are just as many things we don't. Pleo--the new animatronic dinosaur robot from Ugobe--is one fine example. We were told that this artificial but utterly charming lifeform is currently out of stock in the US. So imagine our surprise when a local Pleo enthusiast agreed to loan us one for a product review, when all we (okay, I) wanted was to play with it until the editors started screaming to get on with the review.

So what is Pleo anyway? First of all, it's a newborn Camarasaurus (cue to look up Wikipedia if you haven't paid attention in history class) that has a mind and a life of its own. It takes between 3 and 4 hours for the battery to be fully charged and Pleo will live for about 2.5 hours before it needs to be plugged in again. Our Pleo was a US set, so we had to use a step-down transformer with the battery cradle here in Asia. Otherwise, dear Pleo would truly face electronic extinction.

So far we've gotten it to respond to us when we scratch its chin, stroke its back and feed it. Strange that Pleo's choice of food is a plastic leaf with binary numbers and DNA strands printed on the stems. When it's not hungry, it plays tug-a-war with us, but not before chomping down on our finger. We also played some music for it to listen to and, apparently, it likes Love in the First Degree by Bananarama. I thought I saw it dancing, or was it moving awkwardly to the beat.

During the "birthing" process when Pleo was awakened for the first time, a smart ass colleague asked a question--is it a he or a she?--and attempted to turn the beloved Pleo on its back to check, which I stopped promptly. According to the Ugobe Web site, Pleo is a he. But like all the toys on my desk which seem to have received a fair bit of flak from my colleagues, I prefer to call Pleo a she. I think toys should take on a feminine form, unless you are talking about Optimus Prime. Indeed, with Pleo, I feel like a doting parent already.

As much as I'd like to see Pleo as a real pet, it's hard to forget that she's ultimately an AI robot. Whenever she moves, I can hear the mechanical motors whirring away. But Pleo's beauty is that she doesn't stop at just purring or responding to our stroking. There are third-party development kits available online, such as the one from MySkit, so users can customize her behavior. Put it this way. The animation scripts you can have are limited only by your imagination and time. Once you are satisfied with the script, you just need to copy the file to an SD card, which then goes into the memory slot under Pleo's belly.

So how does a toy like Pleo make all the right responses? Well, Pleo has over two dozen sensors all over her body that are sensitive to light, touch and sound. She even knows when to back off when she's at the edge of a table to avoid falling off. At the heart this dinosaur is a custom platform of tools and technologies dubbed the Life OS that gives Pleo her life-like behavior. She's still a 1.0 version, so while we can expect future developments, her rubber skin reminds us that she's a toy, like many others on the market right now. That said, we can see where the manufacturer is coming from. Pleo has to be able to withstand lots of hands-on play and yet not tear at the slightest stress.

My first few moments with Pleo already had me thinking that this (ironically) prehistoric gadget could be one of the coolest, most advanced gizmos ever. And at S$750, she had better be. Afterall, this isn't a pet any child can afford.

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