Furby creator Caleb Chung has emerged from five years of developing the next advancement in robotic technology: Pleo.
Scheduled to appear tomorrow at the DEMO technology conference in Phoenix, Pleo is a "life form" made by Ugobe, a Bay Area robotic technology group. Chung's latest project is designed to resemble a one-week-old, long-neck dinosaur--a sauropod.
Pleo walks, Pleo listens, and Pleo feels--meaning Pleo has an advanced operating system that allows him to relate to humans through a wide range of emotions. If you startle Pleo, he will be surprised. If you play with Pleo, he will play back.
Equipped with 40 sensors and an advanced system of mobility, its makers say Pleo is a completely autonomous being that can interact with humans or simply react to the environment around him.
"Caleb Chung realized with the Furby that people are more fascinated with life than they were with features and functions," says Ugobe CEO Bob Christopher. "Life is a phenomenal thing to emulate."
Furby became wildly popular in tech circles after its debut in 1998, as people hacked into its system to reprogram it.
Pleo runs on a sophisticated operating system termed "LifeOS" by Christopher. Emotions are configured in an artificial intelligence engine using more than 50 algorithms to simulate hormones and sophisticated emotions. Christopher says Pleo has its own distinct personality--not quite dinosaur, not quite human.
"It has its own Pleo behavior," Christopher says. "It's not like a dinosaur, which you might expect to be like a grumpy old man. It's our own unique version of viewing the world around you and responding to you."
Ugobe designed the robotic companion with input from robotics experts, animators, scientists, biologists, and programmers. Although Christopher says he's in the same market with Honda's ASIMO, and the Robosapien from WowWee, he says his basic technology takes a completely different track from the rest of the robot world.
"We've been able to create a process that is mass marketable but achieves a high-level performance," he says. "It's a big part of our secret sauce."
Pleo, almost five years in the making, is the first in a series of "life forms" created by Ugobe, Christopher says. Following the DEMO conference this week, Ugobe officials will begin marketing the product through traditional media, tech blogs, and retailers followed by an international tour in the summer.
Ugobe also will present Pleo at a Friday news conference at the San Francisco Zoo. It is expected to hit store shelves in time for the holiday season and will cost $199. Christopher says Pleo already has $18 million in committed purchase orders and many more verbal commitments.
Ugobe Robot Code
The company has two target markets for Pleo, Christopher says. The first is kids ages 6 to 12 who will treat the product like a pet. The second is the 22-and-up crowd who are interested in customizing and adding to the base emotions of their Pleos.
Christopher says all the life forms made by Ugobe must obey three laws. They must feel and convey emotion, meaning they feel playful or angry and shows those emotions through either a cheerful or frustrated "squawk." They also must be aware of themselves and their environment, so they know if they're at the edge of a table and need to avoid falling. Third, they must evolve over time.
"Its voice might get deeper, it might learn new tricks on its own," says Christopher. "It will evolve and adapt itself to the pet owner, and that's where the AI [artificial intelligence] comes in."
In addition, Ugobe "life forms," such as a Pleo, will be able to interact with other life forms. Christopher left a few questions unanswered for the surprise factor, including whether Pleo will be able to recognize different voices. And there were a few questions he wasn't sure about, such as how Pleo would react to nonhuman life forms such as dogs or cats.
Ugobe says Pleo will learn and adapt to certain behaviors of its human companion, such as becoming more at ease or more used to certain repeated actions. But as time goes on, the owner can change a Pleo's personality by buying upgrades to the operating system, known as "personality modules." The upgrades can be made through an SD memory card expansion or using a USB connection to download updates from the Internet.
Christopher's ultimate hope is to invite outside software developers and robot fans to develop their own add-ons by introducing a Pleo software development kit. Building and upgrading life forms could be the next trend after PC building, he says.
"The opportunity to dream and to bring things to life is very rich here, so we want to get as many people involved as we can," Christopher says. "We're all going to find varying ways to make robots a large part of our life," Christopher says. "It's inevitable, it's going to happen, and the question is who's going to be able to lead that charge."