A little over a week ago at the DEMO 2006 conference Ugobe announced their first designer life form, Pleo, a robot modeled after a one week old Camarasaurus. Pleo is the first offering from the new California-based robotics company co-founded by Furby designer Caleb Chung. In the weeks prior to the announcement, several tech blogs had begun ruminating about Ugobe and whether they could live up to the declaration on their homepage that their technology would transform “inanimate objects into lifelike creatures exhibiting stunning, organic movement and dynamic behaviors.”
By the time I posted here on the day of the announcement, I was still unable to find any actual photos of Pleo, only pictures of a rough, skinless prototype and digital renderings of the final product. After seeing the impressive Pleo specs laid out in Ugobe’s press release, I had to conclude my post by wondering myself if it would be possible for Pleo to live up to Ugobe’s hype. Today I’ve learned the answer.
Demo.com has video of the Pleo presentation that Bob Christopher, CEO & co-founder of Ugobe, and Caleb Chung made last week to the venture capitalists at Demo. The video starts uneventfully with Christopher dutifully regurgitating every single one of Ugobe’s marketing buzz phrases including the fact that they have “mastered the science of nature” and that their “revolutionary robotic technology … brings magic to life.” It is only when Chung make his way on stage with what appears to be a sleeping Pleo does the magic truly start.
It turns out the Pleo is not asleep, but rather has not been hatched, or activated for the first time. With a plea of “Wake up, Pleo,” Chung is able to coax the dinosaur to consciousness. It is something amazing to witness. Ugobe did not exaggerate when they said their robots would exhibit fluid and natural movements.
Pleo gradually looks from side to side as he gradually becomes more alert and then appears to stretch his front and hind legs. Chung points out that as Pleo looks around, his sensors are collecting data about his surroundings and that when stretching, he is really calibrating his servos. It is this correlation between what is happening mechanically with what happens naturally that drives home the illusion that Pleo is a living, breathing animal. Ugobe after all wants to be like Pixar, blurring technology into reality.
Later in the presentation Chung picks up Pleo after he walks the short distance across the table top. The animal is clearly frightened to be handled, and Chung explains that the sensors in Pleo’s feet recognize this is the first time they are no longer in contact with the ground (ie., table surface) and that Pleo is frightened. But he goes on to say that over time Pleo learns and evolves, and in subsequent handlings he will not be afraid to be picked up and may even come to enjoy it.
Ugobe seems to have a created a phenomenal product with the Pleo. While it may not be as sophisticated as the Sony Aibo, this is the product that Aibo should have been. Ugobe appears to have struck the right balance between mechanics, intelligence, appearance, emotion, and, maybe most importantly, price. At an estimated retail price of $200 USD when it appears later this year, I will be ordering one on the day they become available. Maybe if more people could’ve afforded Aibos the robot dog could’ve avoided an early grave.
I can’t wait to get my hands on one, but until then, Pleo is definitely a robot to keep an eye on.