Pleo Robot Gives Life to Dinosaurs

Pleo isn’t your typical robotic dinosaur pet. Not only does it cry when scolded, shake hands and wag its tail like a dog, but its open-source OS allows users—or the more tech-savvy ones, at least—to create new emotions and movements on their own, which they can share with others.

"This is a real-time OS we developed ourselves; its our own kernel. We wanted to allow people to build on it, so you can take the platform and change his personality," said Bob Christopher, chairman, chief executive and cofounder of Ugobe, which designs and markets the "dino-bot."

The Emeryville, Calif., company was in Taipei Tuesday to introduce Pleo to the island, where some of its largest investors reside, and which is home to its new manufacturing partner, Hon Hai Precision Industry.

About the size of a fat cat, Pleo was designed to look like a one-week-old Camarasaurus, a North American dinosaur from the Jurassic period that roamed giant fern forests. It will be one of the most intricate devices Hon Hai has ever produced. It has six microprocessors—the main one is a 32-bit ARM 7, and it has four subordinate 10-bit Toshiba processors and an 8-bit image processor from Sunplus Technology.

It also boasts 38 sensor chips, giving it stereo hearing to listen for commands; image sensors to detect range, so it won’t run into walls or fall off a table; and touch sensors so it can respond with a smile and a wag of the tail when it’s patted on the head.

The company that designed it has some pedigree. Caleb Chung, Ugobe’s chief inventor and cofounder, was one of the creators of Furby, the interactive toy that became a sensation, selling more than 40 million worldwide. Other employees include Gordon Radley, a former president of Lucasfilm, and Steve Mayer, a cofounder of both Atari Computer and Activision Publishing.

The influence of gaming and movies is apparent in Pleo’s animated personality. He has a library of sounds that allows him to respond with squeaks and roars, and he’ll adjust his body depending on his mood, lowering his head and pulling in his tail when he is sad, for instance.

Users who are adept with software can program new movements and emotions for Pleo. And they can share these with other owners, who can load them through its Secure Digital card slot or over the Web through its USB port.

Pleo runs slow, like a plodding dinosaur, to ensure a minimum of two hours’ battery life, Christopher said. Its nickel metal hydrate (Ni-MH) battery will last up to four hours when Pleo is less active. It takes four to six hours to recharge it, and the toy stays awake during recharging to let users know when it’s ready again for action.

Pleo won’t be out for the important holiday shopping season, however. Ugobe will begin taking pre-orders for the toy online starting Dec. 24, and expects it to be in stores by March 2007, for less than US$250.

The company hopes to go beyond toys to bring a whole new range of robotics to life, although it isn’t saying what’s next. Pleo is designed partly to show what’s possible with today’s low-cost components and advanced software, Christopher said. "The idea is to re-create life in robotics," he said.

More information can be found at Ugobe’s website.

-Dan Nystedt, IDG News Service (Taipei Bureau)

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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