Ugobe spent years developing its first robot, a journey pockmarked with missteps, delays and unfortunate production surprises.
Yet the time spent appears to have paid off. The company's pricey robotic dinosaur, Pleo, will charm and wheedle its way into your heart like a real live pet, and it could help pave the way for a robot renaissance.
Weighing 3.5 pounds and standing roughly 7.5 inches high, Pleo is a brightly colored, fully articulated and autonomous robot dinosaur that expertly responds to touch, visual stimuli and physical positioning (am I standing up, lying down, being hung by my tail?).
Its bright blue eyes open and close to simulate life, though they can't actually see anything. Pleo's main image sensor, a color camera, is in its nose. There are also infrared sensors in its snout and mouth.
Ugobe calls Pleo the first in its line of "Life Forms," though one would hope they can roll out a new one in less than two years.
Like most living things, Pleo starts "life" (its first 5 to 10 minutes) as an infant that can barely control its limbs or mewlings. This is a bit disconcerting and made me feel as if I had just adopted a rubber-skinned newborn.
For the next 45 minutes, it's a hatchling. The instructions note that during this time, Pleo should begin to show basic behaviors and needs.
The robot did in fact calm down and was soon walking slowly around my office and (later) my home and crying out for food or attention.
Pleo doesn't actually eat, but it does come with a rubber leaf (which features binary code on one side) and though I couldn't tell if it recognized it, Pleo would make enthusiastic eating sounds if I shoved it into its mouth.
In general, Pleo's animation and sounds are well synchronized. Audio emanates from its open mouth (there's another speaker on its back) and the panting is usually timed to the rhythmic motion of the bot's body.
Some of Pleo's lifelike illusion is broken by the near-constant whir of the 14 motors embedded in its body. However, you do get used to the sound and, as I did, will quickly find yourself looking past the distraction to Pleo's realistic responses.
Speaking of panting, I don't know if Ugobe did specific research on the dinosaur Pleo is modeled after (a Camarasaurus), but I doubt that juvenile dinos acted like small puppies.
I'm not complaining. Its tail-wagging, panting and response to being held and stroked is all quite charming. I'm just guessing that a real baby dinosaur would probably try to escape your clutches and/or chomp off your ear.
Once Pleo has fully "matured," it remains a juvenile for life. This robot is not, in fact, the company's full vision for its "Life Forms."
In my experience, Pleo did seem to mature and grow more interactive over a short 48-hour period, though this is not the full "learning and developing" Ugobe promised. The company expects to deliver free software updates to realize that ideal early this year.
Pleo is updatable. It comes with a USB port so you can download updates and an SD card slot for additional tricks and interactions (none are currently available, but Pleo owners may see downloads as early as this month). I wish the nose camera could be used to capture and download real photos to the SD card.
Once my Pleo reached "Juvenile" stage, it became somewhat needy. Just like a real pet, it constantly called out for comfort, looking up at me (or at least it appeared that way) and wagging its highly articulated tail until I placed my hand on its back. Then it stopped and cooed in comfort.
The robot's skin features eight sensors spread across the head, chin, shoulders and legs and, in my experience, they react to a fairly light touch or stroke. It's a marked difference from robots like Wow Wee's Robosapien, which uses buttons to detect touch.
Wow Wee's most-advanced robot, the Robopanda, does include invisible skin sensors that respond to strokes and touch, but they reside under a hard plastic shell.
Pleo also has a pressure sensor on each foot and an orientation sensor inside its body. These tell Pleo when it's been picked up and if it's lying down or standing up. Pleo cannot get up from a lying-down position.
It clearly recognizes and enjoys being picked up, however. Any time I cradled it in my arms or held it against my chest and stroked its back, Pleo stretched out its legs and nuzzled its head against my shoulder.
I could even tickle Pleo by randomly touching his feet sensors (it makes something like a laughing sound).
The documentation talks about teaching Pleo to perform tricks, but doesn't really suggest any.
A reviewer's guide suggested I try to figure out how to make Pleo stand on two legs. I never got it to do this, but I did learn how to make it shake hands as a dog would: If I held onto one front leg for a couple of seconds, Pleo would lift it up. Fun!
Pleo's far from perfect. The rubber skin smells funny, and stroking it is somewhat difficult -- your hand will drag along the brightly colored rubber flesh.
One blog poster suggested sprinkling it with baby powder, but I worry about how that might damage the robot's sensors and 14 actuators.
Charging Pleo's removable battery can take 3 hours in a recharging station that sometimes makes it difficult to properly seat the battery, and then you get roughly an hour of playtime.
There's no visual indicator or beep that lets you know when Pleo is running out of juice. It just slows down and eventually stops.
I remember how Sony's AIBO robot dog could actually hunt for its charging station when it was running out of power. On the other hand, it was often too far from the base to make it and ended up temporarily dead on the kitchen floor.
Pleo walks and moves smoothly, but it's slow, and unlike a real puppy, cannot run into your arms. You can make it come to you by holding its legs for three seconds, but then there'll be a long, long wait for it to arrive.
Pleo has force-feedback sensors in its legs, but they're currently not enabled. That much was obvious whenever I lifted it by its stomach, which positioned my hand in the middle of its four legs.
Both my 12-year-old son and I had the experience of Pleo nearly crushing our hands. No damage was done, but the robot seems unaware that our digits were there.
Pleo is not for small children. Its skin could be easily damaged by tiny prying fingers, and delicate machinery is just under the surface (I can feel it). The $349 price tag alone would dissuade most parents of young children, anyway.
My worry, however, is that it will probably turn off parents of those 8 and older, too. If it came down to an Xbox 360 or a Pleo, which one do you think would win?
What most people will have a hard time understanding is that Ugobe's Pleo is one of the most sophisticated personal home entertainment robotic devices on the market today. It easily outshines robot toys from Wow Wee and Hasbro, though both companies offer robots that cost less than half of what Pleo does.
Its nearest competitor, the Wow Wee Robopanda, is a good gift for young children, but it's not nearly as adorable, animated or intelligent as Pleo. (Yes, it can stand up and crawl, but it doesn't look very good doing it.)
In the end, Pleo will appeal to children between 8 and 12, and robot enthusiasts of all ages. It will immediately endear, but then, just like a real puppy or baby, take patience to get to know and love.
That commitment may be rewarded as Ugobe adds new abilities next year. These downloads and a small but active online community are available at PleoWorld.com.
Pleo is available at www.pleoworld.com or one of Ugobe's online retail partners including Sharper Image, Amazon.com, Best Buy, and Target.
Editor's rating: Four out of five stars.
Copyright © 2008 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Media Inc. is prohibited.