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The Future of RoboPuppies

Sony aims to send home the first upgradable robot dog.

We have an International Space Station in orbit. We’ve cracked the genetic code. We’re cloning animals and eventually maybe even people. What’s next?

Why, robot dogs as programmable as your PC, of course.

This month Sony demonstrated its new “entertainment architecture,” OPEN-R, at the Game Developers Conference in San Diego. The goal is to let third-party developers create new hardware and software add-ons for Sony’s popular AIBO robot dog.

Here, AIBOy!

While the AIBO hasn’t caught on in the U.S. beyond a small market of robot enthusiasts, it’s wildly popular in Japan. (AIBO in Japanese means “companion,” and it’s also a convenient, if somewhat clumsy, acronym in English for Artificial Intelligence RoBOt.)

Just under four pounds and about one foot long, the AIBO looks like a plastic Jetsons version of a Scottish terrier. The latest AIBO-210 model retails for around $1,500.

Like the Tamagotchi of a few years back, the AIBO is designed to be a digital pet. It has built-in sensors for hearing, touch, balance and sight. It wags its tail when happy and otherwise communicates “emotion” through LED lights in the face and tail.

The latest AIBO-210 model adds voice recognition and movement control over a wireless local area network. What’s more, AIBO owners can purchase additional behavior packs-software bundles stored on a memory stick that you insert into the robot. The AIBO Party Pack, for instance, lets you play games such as rock-paper-scissors.

Trading Up

Sony is hoping that by providing an open platform for third-party developers, AIBO owners will continually “upgrade” their pet-swapping new hardware and software in the same way video-game fans buy new titles.

“Once you come up with different applications, anything can happen,” says Jon Piazza, spokesperson for Sony’s Entertainment Robot America division. “Look at the [home console] video game industry-this could be the start of something like that This could be on the same level as PlayStation 2.”

Other vendors are banking on the same concept. Technology company iRobot is creating a consumer model of its iRobot machine, which can be remotely controlled over the Internet via a regular Web browser. iRobot is also working on a developer’s kit and hopes to ship early next year. Spokesperson Sharon Campbell says iRobot is aiming for a price point “around that of a high-end notebook PC.”

Teaching New Tricks

So what kind of add-ons can we expect for our future robot pets?

“You might see a GPS system, or a module that lets AIBO read you your e-mail,” Piazza says. Another possibility: an AIBO-Cam that wirelessly broadcasts what the robot sees and hears back to your PC or television.

The AIBO is wired for hardware add-ons as well, with easy pop-off parts. “It could be possible to pop on wheels to let AIBO roll around,” Piazza says. “Or maybe you want a lion head or a dinosaur head-or something totally futuristic-looking.” Steadied with wheels, Piazza says, AIBO could even be programmed to wheel a tray of margaritas around at your next party.

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