Robot Central recently had the opportunity to have a candid one-on-one talk, arranged by Jonas Lamis, Executive Director of SciVestor and contributor to Robot Central, with John Sosoka, CTO of Ugobe, makers of Pleo at Maker Faire 2007. I fully admit that I was sure I would be talking to John about just another fancy toy. I was profoundly wrong.
Just as the doors were opening on the first day of Maker Faire 2007, John grabbed Pleo and we made our way out of the noisy floor to the quiet but windy outside and sat on the fresh-cut grass. Pleo seemed right at home standing in the grass as he appeared to be grazing. It was the first time I had seen Pleo up close. He felt sturdy and he had a mass that a dog his size might have.
Fascinated with Pleo and his convincing fusion of sensory competence and animatronic grace, I blurted out the first question that came to mind. “Do you think people will perceive Pleo as a robot toy or as a pet?” He responded indirectly. “For me, the thing that’s exciting about going down this path is the life-form side.” He went on to say that “you have to do a good job of building a robot in order to pull it off, but it’s almost like that’s the price of admission to get to do the part I’m really intrigued about which is to give that illusion of life.”
Given that the “price of admission,” or the building of the Pleo platform, has already been paid, I asked about Pleo’s openness to 3rd party developers. He said that “[Ugobe is] trying to provide access for the widest group of people we can to modify Pleo.” He explained that Ugobe wanted to make available a platform that would also appeal to creative application developers and not necessarily just to researchers. “I think it would be a lot of fun for a lot of kids to be able to do programming, and algorithms, and robotics experiments with something like this instead of a wheeled car, or an iRobot Create, which are great but not everybody likes those things.”
I dug in a little deeper into the programming aspects of Pleo. I asked John about the VM running in Pleo and the primary language used by Ugobe. When I asked if it was Java-based, he said “Java to me is punishment.” He immediately tried to soften the statement by explaining how he loved Gosling’s work but quipped again that programming with Java is like programming “in handcuffs.” “I love virtual machines, though, I’ve used them a lot. We didn’t write a proprietary language, as much fun as that would have been.” After briefly consulting with Ugobe’s publicist whether he could tell us the language Pleo’s written in, he told us it was written in Pawn.
While on the topic of programmability, I had to ask John about his opinion regarding standards on personal robots. He gave a good and seemingly well-rehearsed response. “One of the things that we find is that without standards we usually don’t find strong commercial interest because there’s too much overhead” in developing software for the robots. He deepened his analysis, however and acknowledged that standard interfaces to actuators and sensors would make life much easier for him, in particular during the prototyping phase; however, he believes that the large variations between robot applications and actuator configurations constitute a major inhibitor to the establishment of a standard. “I think it’s a good idea but it won’t solve all of my problems right now which is what I’d like.”
It was about that time that I looked down at the grass and noticed that Pleo was looking right at me. His tail was wagging and his eyes blinked. I was taken aback at how effective the combination of a wagging tail, friendly eyes, and a small growl can be when combined with sensors that respond to the world. Next to the animated Pleo was the carcass of a relative which depicted the inanimate collection of innards comprised of plastic, touch sensors, a camera, microphones, an infra red transmitter and receiver, motors, springs, joints, and wires all organized in a very deliberate and compact configuration. And those were the elements of Pleo I was able to see from the outside. Inside was an equally dense microprocessor and battery ecosystem that continued the artistry of Pleo’s design. This hardware was the price of admission to which John referred earlier in our conversation.
After playing with Pleo for the first time, I felt compelled to ask, “Why a dinosaur?” John lit up as if though he had been waiting for that question. He started with a good business answer. We chose a dinosaur “because it’s a great brand. There’s no (sic) royalties.” Once he got that out of the way, he got a little more interesting. “Everybody’s fascinated with dinosaurs.” He went on to explain how deliberate the decision was to make Pleo a dinosaur. Not just a dinosaur, but a particular kind of dinosaur–a Camarasaur. “A Camarasaur after a couple of weeks of hatching would be right about this size,” gesturing to Pleo. “We didn’t want to make a scaled-down dinosaur because it would feel like you were playing with a toy. As a Camarasaur, you feel as though you’re playing with a dinosaur.” John also explained that a dinosaur had certain elements that could be used in expressing or emoting, such as a tail or a long neck.
Before wrapping up the interview I had to fulfill my promise to my 8 year-old daughter, asking if Pleo could sing. John picked Pleo up and showed me the SIM card slot underneath and explained that all of Pleo’s sounds could be shadowed on the card if named properly. So, the purring sound Pleo makes when he’s content might be replaced with a singing sound–thus, making John’s answer, “Yes.”
John Sosoka’s responses made it clear that Ugobe was trying to do more than make a toy. Every decision Ugobe made about Pleo’s design aligned with the desire to create an artificial life form, from the decision to make Pleo a dinosaur to the behaviors chosen to be coded within him. Like the Roomba, I believe Pleo has the capacity to evoke emotional responses in humans. Unlike the Roomba, Pleo’s purpose is to target and appeal to our emotions. I believe Pleo will do just that.
We recorded the interview and broke it out into different topics: