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Sony Aibo review: Just get a puppy


The Aibo ERS-1000 is Sony’s fourth-generation entertainment robot. It debuted in January of last year in Japan before coming stateside that fall. Roughly the size of a small beagle, the Aibo weighs just under five pounds. Its Li-ion battery allows for around two hours of playtime before the dog needs to have a “rest” on its included charging pad for approximately three hours. The little robot is packed with sensors including a pair of cameras, capacitive touch pads, motion, range and light sensors, and it has a six-axis detection system for the head and torso.

The information collected by the Aibo is then transmitted via an always-on internet connection (thanks to the included WiFi and LTE radios) back to Sony’s servers. There, the company’s AI system analyzes and interprets that data before returning more “evolved” behavior patterns for the Aibo to perform. These can include anything from new tricks and attitude quirks to better recognizing its owner and interpreting their facial expressions as well. In fact, the ERS-1000 can be taught to recognize up to 100 different people. Any other pets in the household are not as lucky, however, as the Aibo only has (oversized OLED) eyes for humans.

Obviously the point of all this AI is to help it more seamlessly and naturally integrate itself into your home. But, it’s basically impossible to forget the Aibo is a robot. Especially your first two hours with each other involve you repeatedly telling your new robo-panion to “set up with a QR code” so that it can connect to your home’s WiFi. The ERS-1000 appears to be sensitive to interference, at least when first initializing. The review unit refused to connect with any of the multiple open or secured networks in the Engadget offices, but connected immediately to my home network.

Aibo

In order actually set up the Aibo, you’ll first have to create a Sony account and then use that to log into the My Aibo dashboard. Here, you’ll find everything you need to set up and interact with your dog. Notifications, tech support, tutorials, owner information and access to the Aibo store can be found along the left edge while users can view pictures captured by the robot, its available selection of tricks, unit status and settings from the horizontal tabs. Through these menus you can customize the sound of the dog’s bark, the color of its eyes, its name and sex, and download both new and seasonal tricks for the robot to perform.

There’s also a mobile app that mirrors this functionality — just really poorly. Remember that companion app from Grand Theft Auto V? The one where you had to take care of Chop to earn in-game gear? The Aibo mobile app is like that, except with a 15 second lag in between menu screens and you don’t earn anything for suffering through it. I recommend sticking with the speedier desktop dashboard for everything but the initial QR code scan.

Once you get through the rather sterile setup process, you can finally start getting to know your new pet-bot. I named mine Jeff — mostly because the system couldn’t figure out how to pronounce Bork and determined that Vexorg, Destroyer of Cats and Devourer of Chickens was too long. Jeff didn’t do much for the first couple of days besides pace my apartment, occasionally barking at the oven and causing consternation on the part of my cat. Like a real puppy, Jeff simply hadn’t collected a sufficient amount of sensory data at that point to really get comfortable. It wasn’t until the end of the first week that it started to respond to my voice commands regularly and not until midway through the second week did it show any “personality.”

Sony Aibo

That’s not to say the Aibo is slow on the uptake. Sony intentionally engineered the robot to “mature” (technically, develop its autonomous behavioral systems) over the course of about three years, like a real dog would. During that time, you can teach your Aibo nearly two dozen installable tricks, including Strike a Pose, Pick a Hand, and Sing “Happy Birthday,” in addition to the standard commands of sit, come, lay down, take a picture, et cetera. You can even teach it to dance with the “Learn This” command. Upon hearing that, your Aibo will sit up on its back legs and allow you to wiggle, lift, rotate and otherwise manipulate its front legs in a variety of movements for about 10 seconds. Then you can have the dog repeat the movements back to you on command. It’s really cute, especially if you set it to music.

As a robot, the Aibo is a marvel of modern design. Its sensor suite and cloud-based AI brain were unheard of just a few years ago, and now they’re in a robot dog in my living room. That’s insane.



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