Man's best friend, the robot?

Doggy: Here, ERS-111. Here, ERS-111. Good boy.

November 06, 1999|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

You say you want a dog, but without all the hassles: the puddles the size of Lake Superior that appear all over the floor during housebreaking, the suicidal dashes in front of the mail truck, the endless yapping when you tie Rover out in the back yard, the way he hurls himself violently at the screen door when anyone knocks.

Aibo could be the way to go -- at least if you have a spare $2,500 to plunk down (and who doesn't with the holidays just around the corner?)

Aibo, for the uninitiated, is the little robotic dog first introduced by Sony in this country in June, when it proceeded to sell out in just four days.

This week, Sony is offering an updated version called Model ERS-111, which contains everything you always wanted in a pet: a 64-bit processor, 16 megabytes of memory, a 180,000-pixel color camera and all sorts of sensors.

Not to mention two new colors: gray silver and metallic black. The $2,500 price is the same this time around and a $450 optional software package is also available.

Ten thousand Aibos will be up for, um, "adoption" this week by calling a toll-free number or by logging on to Sony's Web site.

There's no way to tell how the Aibos are selling; Sony is not releasing sales figures.

"But I can tell you the response has been very strong, particularly in Japan, and a little less so in the United States and Europe," Sony spokeswoman Caroline Lappetito said yesterday from her car phone in midtown Manhattan.

Aibo means "pal" in Japanese, although Sony says the first two letters of the name also stand for Artificial Intelligence.

But whatever the name's significance, the Japanese, it can be safely said, are nuts about Aibo. Two thousand of them sold out in 20 minutes when first introduced in Japan.

What makes Aibo so different from other robots, according to the Sony Web site, is that Aibo is autonomous, meaning that "it has its own emotions and instincts and can learn and mature."

"Aibo," the Web site continues, "expresses joy, sadness, anger and fear through movements, sound (yes, it barks) and by lighting up its eyes. For instance, if Aibo is in a bad mood, it won't do as it is told.

"On the other hand, if Aibo is in a good mood, it will show you one of its favorite tricks."

(However, the Web site is curiously silent on what, exactly, that favorite trick is.)

Dog lovers -- lovers of real dogs, that is -- may be slightly put off by Aibo's appearance, which includes a futuristic, metallic-looking torso, ears that look like the levers on a slot machine and a tail as ramrod straight as a car antenna.

Aibo's face might also take some getting used to, with eyes that glow behind a Darth Vader-like mask. The total effect could leave little children screaming and fleeing into the next room, were it not for Aibo's relatively small size (9 inches.)

But the fact is, said Lappetito, Aibo is being marketed "as a complement to real-life pets, not to replace real-life pets."

"This is a robot," she said. "It won't take the place of a living, breathing thing. This offers a virtual pet experience if you don't have a pet."

Aibo was developed, Lappetito said, because "Sony is interested in pushing the envelope of home entertainment."

And although it's far more expensive than previous hard-to-get Christmas toys (think Beanie Babies and Furbies), it may well touch off the same panicky, got-to-have-it fever among the well-heeled.

And here we are, only 50 shopping days left `til Christmas.

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