A pack of puppies barked, wagged their tails, and enjoyed enthusiastic petting by adoring humans in Sony’s New York City showroom on Thursday, but they never peed, shed fur or growled. That’s because these were Sony’s newly-unveiled robotic dogs, called Aibo, that are already a modest hit in Japan.
The robotic pooches cost about as much as some of the most sought-after purebred dogs at $2,899. That’s the price of Sony’s First Litter Edition, which includes the Aibo, dog toys, commemorative dog tags, and a a three-year cloud plan, which allows it to upload and access its memory. The price seems outrageous, but massive sales are likely not what Sony is going for when it starts selling the latest model in September.
“It’s a novelty product, an early, early, early adopter product. It’s not designed to sell as much as Sony’s 65-inch televisions are going to sell,” says Stephen Baker, vice president and industry advisor for NPD Group. “It’s a demonstration as to what the capabilities are to let people in the industry and early adopter phase and the press, let them know what they can do and give you a taste of what’s coming.”
Aibo also provides an opportunity for Sony to showcase its existing technology. The image sensing and recognition technology, already present in its televisions, cameras, and PlayStation Move, allow Aibo to better understand and remember its surroundings.
Aibo can recognize up to 100 faces and detect different relationships based on feedback and interaction with each person, so if you pet its back, neck, or nose, it will seem to like you and respond better in the future to you. Aibo, in turn, responds by obeying (or disobeying) commands or giving a sad or happy look with its eyes.
On first pass, Aibo seems superficially cute without substance. As assistant technology saturates the technology market in phones, speakers, and computers, and more utilitarian robotic companions vacuum floors, it may not seem like Aibo is adding much.
Perhaps it isn’t, in terms of functionality. Aibo isn’t a search engine dog. It doesn’t follow you around waiting for you to ask it to shut off the lights. However, Aibo has what every other voice assistant and robot lacks — a personality.
Sony emphasizes that as Aibo ages, it will develop a personality based on behaviors its users encourage and discourage by petting it after properly executing a command or by saying “bad” or “no” if it fails to. Out of the box the robotic dogs are all the same parts and programming, but in a week, a month, a year, each one could be as different from both other Aibos and its younger self as a real litter of puppies.
Existing assistant developers are working on adding similar functions to their technology. Apple’s Siri has more voices and accents, Amazon added options requiring children to say please and thank you, and both have made attempts to increase inflection. They can laugh and even tell jokes. But they still feel static and monotone.
Voice assistants are also limited by their very nature since they can only interpret voice. Much of human communication occurs through facial expressions and other body language cues. That may not be important when all you want to know is the weather. But as demand for assistant technology grows, it’s likely those devices will increasingly interpret your request as well.
“There’s not a lot of other products out there that take advantage, directly, of the kind of robotics we’re talking about with Aibo. It’s a play to remind people that voice isn’t the only way we’re going to interact and our devices are going to interact with us in the future,” Baker says.
That probably still won’t be enough to entice the average customer into dropping nearly $3,000 on Aibo, but it has the ability to appeal to gadget lovers. Evidence of the niche market could lie in Aibo’s own history.
Sony introduced the first Aibo in 1999, and produced another five versions before the project was scrapped in 2006. Sony actually refused to call the first models dogs, but that didn’t stop owners from treating the Aibos like members of the family.
The New York Times documented the lengths some owners in Japan still go to in order to keep the robotic companions going. Owners will order spare parts on eBay and even hold funerals once they can’t be fixed anymore. Sony sold 150,000 models from 1999 to 2006, and has already sold 20,000 in Japan since the latest release there in January.
While Japan’s market differs from that of the U.S., Aibo shows promise finding a market despite the price tag it comes with.