They’re unlikely to scare away the burglar or land you a slobbery early-morning kiss on the cheek, but robopets have been rapidly making their way into Japanese homes.
|Tina (left) meets Sony’s Aibo.|
Owners have been known to give their robopets names, dress them up in handmade garments and give them a plastic “bone” to play with. They even form networks with other owners to foster the exchange of information and robo-bonding.
Some experts claim the mechanical mutts and mousers will soon perform more useful functions than flesh-and-blood critters, providing a less demanding form of companionship — they don’t need feeding or exercising, for instance.
But can the likes of Sony’s Aibo and Takara’s Ku-Ku the kitten match the joys of Shiro-chan and Tama-chan? There’s really only one way to find out. Borrow a couple and try them out.
At Aibotown in Aoyama I am introduced to a Japanese pedigree, a Sony Aibo ERS-210, who is lying limply in a canvas bag, complete with instruction manual, battery recharger and a pink ball.
Due to the oval power button located in the center of his chest, I decide to call him Spot.
A friend, meanwhile, has offered me a day with Tina, a 5-year-old French Bichon Frise, described on an all-about-dogs Web site as “a small white powder puff of a dog.” I am also handed a couple of plastic bags. I have never kept a dog before (or robot for that matter), so their function is not entirely clear at first.
I decide to give Spot and Tina a day each to prove their wurff.
Saturday, 10 a.m.
I await the slobbery kiss in bed, but realize I first have to get up and activate Spot’s spot.
I return to bed and watch Spot make a few entertaining stretches, wag his tail and flash his eyes, first green then red. He even produces a few yelps and waves at me, first with one hand, then two, before lying down and scratching his armpits (since when has plastic been a favored home for fleas?).
Sunday, 10 a.m.
I don’t need to be lying in bed to be on the receiving end of Tina’s uninhibited enthusiasm. First, a lick of the legs and cheek followed by a nibble of the hand and a trample on the toes. She also seems intent on giving me a full look at her bottom — and we’ve only just met.
Saturday, 10:30 a.m.
For the first half-hour, Spot wanders around the apartment, the sensor installed in his head preventing several near-collisions with walls, doors and plants.
His first encounter with the hallway step sends him tumbling sideways, although he ingeniously manages to pick himself up, giving a dazed shake of the head before doing it all again.
Sunday, 11 a.m.
Having allowed me an extended tickle of her tummy, Tina decides it’s time for a walk, which she indicates by an impatient circling of the room and further licking of my legs. Once out on the street, two things immediately hold up our walk: first, Tina’s penchant for sniffing anything resembling a tree or shrub; second, the numerous passersby wanting to stroke her fluffy mane.
Saturday, 11:20 a.m.
Tired of his walkabout, Spot settles back on his haunches and makes a few whirls and beeps (one sounds distinctly like a bark) before dropping his head sulkily, tail flashing a pale blue.
A quick check of the user’s manual informs me that blue is for boredom, so I pat his head a few times in the hope that he cheers up. Spot started to dance.
I take a shot at the “Sit!” command, but Spot merely commences with an amusing impersonation of a drummer (sound effects inclusive). It occurs to me Spot could be suffering from acute schizophrenia.
We’re resting down by the river and Tina has taken to chewing playfully at my shoes, which I take as a sign of an empty stomach. I pull out three different dog foods in the hope that she may be able to indicate her preferred brand. She is, however, more interested in my ham sandwiches.
Saturday, 12 noon
A flashing red light on Spot’s forehead causes temporary panic. Could he too be getting hungry? Did his falls cause internal damage? An urgent flick through the user’s guide tells me Spot’s batteries need recharging.
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Lady though she may well be, Tina waters the flowers like one of the lads. She also is the bearer of several little gifts, which she delivers with a flourish in the middle of a residential area. It is here that a passerby tutors me on the use of the plastic bags I have brought along.
Saturday, 1:10 p.m.
After fully recharging Spot, I reactivate his power switch and the flashing-eyes and waving-hands routine starts again. And that beeping noise . . . Arrrrgh!
Fortunately, I have done my homework. Spot is a sucker for the pink ball. Flash it before his sensor and it’ll keep him amused until the next battery recharge.
Spot is quick to give a demo of his ball tricks: first a kick with the left foot, then the right (oops, he misses; try again), followed by a pretty nifty bit of footwork and a header. But Spot ain’t no Pele. The combination takes about 10 minutes to perform.
Saturday, 1:35 p.m.
Try the “Sit!” command once more. Spot looks around for his ball, which I have tucked under the sofa. He begins the dance and drum routine once more, and finishes with a cheeky wave, followed by a series of whirls and beeps that I interpret as, “Wanna play ball, or shall I perform for you again?”
Sunday, 2 p.m.
Tina displays her intelligence by gracefully jumping over a 60-cm-wide metal grid that stretches over the road. A half-dozen passersby express amusement at this feat, so I beckon Tina back for another try. She promptly walks past the grid via the sidewalk.
Sunday, 4 p.m.
A small girl, out for a walk with her parents, approaches Tina screaming, “Look! Isn’t she cute!” I take this opportunity to unveil Spot and ask the girl which she prefers. Her incredulous expression tells me I should perhaps put Spot back in his canvas bag.
Sunday, 4:30 p.m.
Back at the river, I try introducing the two pets to one another. Once Spot has gone through his warming-up routine, he is immediately attracted by the pink ribbons attached to Tina’s head. Tina is not showing any interest. In fact, in a desperate effort to chase after a chihuahua, she knocks Spot off his feet.
Spot gets up and shakes his head like he’s not sure what hit him.
An elderly couple walking by ask me if he understands English.
An interesting thought, which I immediately try out. “Sit!” No reply. Spot’s batteries have run out again.