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Redesigning the Dinosaur


Caleb Chung is the reigning genius at Ugobe, a company that "develops revolutionary robotics that transform inanimate objects into lifelike creatures". For Pop!Tech he delivers a mind-boggling demonstration of one of Ugobe's much-trailed new "living toys"--a life-size two-week-old camarasauruscalled Pleo, powered by an open-source operating system, Life OS, that has a capacity to learn. Pleo should be on sale for $350 retail right before Christmas.

Chung, who is half German and half Chinese, began his toymaking career with Mattel in 1985, designing for a division which targeted the infant, preschool, boys' toys, Barbie, activities and games markets.

He shows a video of some of the more outlandish inventions he came up with there, some of which he actually convinced Mattel to develop: toy cookie- and apple-pie makers, a bunch of fighting robots that fought each other almost to virtual death, a sort of Barbie on wheels, and many other toys that "you wouldn't want to give you kids at Christmas", as Chung puts it.

His fortunes soared after he co-invented the hot toy of 1998, Furby, which sold over 50 million units worldwide, generating over $1.2 billion in sales. That was probably a precursor of things to come; Furby was cute, but in a very special, perhaps, even "robotic" way.

The global success of Furby allowed Chung to retire; but he was restless, he had always wanted to build a dinosaur, and he started working on Pleo--an attempt to make a real life-form replicating a baby dinosaur.

Who needs another life form? Why do it? Chung says that he believes that humans need empathy and we don't get enough of this in real life. So there is a place for these new life-forms in our society and they do serve a real purpose of comforting us.

To design his dinosaur, Chung spent a lot of time nosing around museums and reading obscure books, trying to get close to the real thing. He spent an incredible amount of time creating an eye that would look authentic

The philosophy behind Pleo is based on what Chung calls the "three laws of Ugobe life-forms". First of all, these creatures should show how they "feel" and what they are "thinking". Second, they should become aware of themselves and the environment. Finally, they should be able to learn and adopt over time, just as real creatures do. Thus, although Pleo is filled in with all sorts of gadgets and little particles--motors, gears, software--what gets you is the "human" part of it. "You get a character that you can fall in love with", says Chung.

Pleo is really heavy on the gadgets part. Inside is a 32-bit microprocessor and four 8-bit subprocessors, as well as 100 customized gears, 38 sensors, 14 motors and a camera-based optical system (it also has a card-slot and USB slots on its stomach). On top of that it's powered by an open-source operating system, Life OS. We could all end up writing applications for our Pleos.

Chung brought a beta prototype and showed it off. This Pleo made weird sounds and behaved rather naughtily; at one point Chung had to turn it off, because it was competing for the audience's attention. I would be curious to observe Pleo's learning process. At least while on stage, it didn't really improve its behavior in real-time!

Source: The Economist
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