Pleo

Pleo
Pleo

In the next few years, electronic pets will start entering our homes. As toys become more like robots and the need for levels of interaction breeds artificial intelligence in our children's playthings, these "toys" will get more and more complicated to the point of becoming full-fledged robots.

But in case you can't wait, one such robot is already here.

Pleo isn't like a robot you'd expect. He doesn't have any shiny chrome or white metal parts. He doesn't even dance. Pleo is one of the first commercially available robotic pets.

Pleo is a dinosaur designed to be autonomous. He can walk around, lie down, sleep, and generally "feel" with the help of several sensors placed all over his body. Designed by the people who brought you Furby, Pleo is said to be more than a toy because... he can think.

What Pleo thinks about I haven't got a clue, but what he does do he can do on his own accord. The design behind Pleo is that you can't actually make Pleo do anything. Much like a real cat or dog, Pleo is supposed to think for himself.

But does he? Does Pleo really do things by himself?


Turn him on for the first time and you'll be greeted with a small cat-sized dinosaur that's just beginning to come into the world. Ugobe - the makers of Pleo - suggest that from this point on Pleo will be developing his own personality and that the way you treat him is one of the deciding factors.

I'm not so sure.

We got Pleo in his juvenile years, a stage of Pleo's life that comes several hours after owning one. After two or three battery charge cycles, Pleo becomes far more interactive and more pet-like: this is his "Juvenile" stage. It's in this phase of his life that Pleo walks, grumbles, makes cute noises, and is altogether an actual animal.

Sadly, what Pleo is touted to be simply isn't the case. The truth of the matter is that if Pleo really does have a personality then I must be a banana peel and seeing that I'm allergic banana, this would prove writing this review rather difficult.

While it's possible that Pleo's programming makes it seem that he's real, Pleo is more of a toy that ignores what you want him to do. With touch sensors, microphones, a camera, and a whole bunch of other neat tech bits to help guide him, Pleo can theoretically do whatever he wants but this just seems to give the impression that Pleo is acting by himself rather than actually doing something by himself.


Without getting into too much of a technicality, Pleo is responding to situations the way a toy would: waiting for something to happen before settling down and sleeping. A real animal actually responds to independent situations differently because it has a brain and thinks for itself whereas Pleo is still essentially waiting for something that you - the user - will do for it.

So while it could be said that Pleo doesn't require human interaction to function and will do as he pleases, he still technically does because you have to turn him on and touch him in order to get any reaction out of him. Outside of this, Pleo might wander around, get bored, and then sleep.

A real animal can do this too and they don't require batteries, something else that makes Pleo more of a toy than a pet.

The battery used in Pleo seems to be of a technology you wouldn't expect to find when forking out $449 for your new pet. Nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) doesn't last long and at a two-hour charge with a two-hour recharge needed, that's not a long length of time you'll be spending with your new found dinosaur. At $49 per battery, you'll need to invest in a few to really get to know your Pleo well.

What would have been really cool would be for Ugobe to build the charger right into the Pleo body so you don't have to take Pleo's guts out when you want to recharge him.


It doesn't stop there though because neither the sound nor the material posing as Pleo's flesh is all that good either. The sounds Pleo makes are more like little bubbly glurb noises that an adult imitating a baby might make and while the flesh is made from what seems like a solid & flexible rubber compound, the reviewer unit we were working with had only been in circulation for a few months and had already been worn almost to the bone (or in Pleo's case, the exoskeleton underneath).

Robotic servo noises are also a problem as Pleo's motors and gears are just way too loud and can be heard audibly over anything else going on.

But then there's the things that make you smile about Pleo. Things like just how cute Pleo really is, the eyes looking up at you, half-closing, and then opening up again to reveal a robotic pet that almost looks as if he's smiling just for you.

I love how accurate the tail and head are. Those are two areas where Pleo is simply remarkable. Similar to how a cats tail works whereby it's almost as if the limb is an extra arm, Pleo's tail will do the same wrapping around the curves in your stomach or arm if you decide to hold Pleo when he falls asleep. The head sensors are fantastic too as stroking the head like a regular animal will yield the occasional head twitch, cute noise, or even a request by Pleo to stroke another part of his head by rotating his head.

Features like this give Pleo life and almost make him real.

It's sort of like the virtual Pinocchio constantly pestering Geppetto over and over again that yes, he is a real boy... only we know Pleo isn't a real pet dinosaur. Dolphins don't, however.


Ugobe have even been good enough to include an SD card slot at the bottom in case you want to upgrade your Pleo, run some of the toy upgrades that make your dinosaur more like a toy and temporarily override the main personality, or just push Pleo's programming a little more than what Ugobe have thought of with the help of an open platform.

But then there's the price and that sort of ruins it all. While the concept is cool and the execution needs a bit more work, a little under five-hundred bucks is a lot of money to ask for a "pet" that behaves more like a "toy" than anything else.

I was really hoping for more from Pleo. I've been a fan of the concept since I first saw it was coming out. A real virtual pet that could make its own decisions: yes, this would be cool.

But when you start to use it, the hype sort of sits in the back of your mind like a ragged paper bag blowing in the wind. It's there nagging at you that it exists all the while you're going "but it's a load of crap".

And that's the sad truth about Pleo: while it was hyped up to be a sentient technology, it's little more than a $450 chew toy.


Product: Pleo

Vendor: Ugobe; distributed in Australia by Next Technologies

RRP: $449

Website: PleoWorld

Reviewed by Leigh D. Stark

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