To say that Sony’s CES press conference was a bit disappointing could well be an understatement, and that’s even when you take into account the already distinctly low wow-factor standards of other Sony press conferences. But right towards the end of this one, something happened that at least managed to raise eyebrows and elicit quite a few smiles. To an audible ‘awww’ from the audience of otherwise bored and jaded tech bloggers, Sony produced a pair of adorable robot dogs, and by so doing they heralded in the long-awaited return of the Aibo.
Unlike its competitors, Samsung and LG, Sony had kept its cards close to the chest in the days and weeks running up to the CES, and we journalists (forever hopeful) were expecting something bold and brash in the TV and audio offerings. And listening to the way most of the conference’s other big announcements had concerned themselves with voiced-based AI, (such as Google Assistant), the cute, cuddly, and utterly pettable robo-pups caught most of us completely off guard.
To be fair, the press conference lasted all of 25 minutes (much to the relief of most of the attending journalists) and the robot pups made their appearance just as things were winding down. Steered into a prepared (fake) living room space, the mechanical mutts waddled around much like real puppies and awkwardly attempted to get their bearings. But once they’d settled, it didn’t take long to realize that in terms of mechanics, the robo-pups had come a heck of a long way.
Once you can think away the shiny plastic coat, the new Aibo is remarkably lifelike. Surrounded by a sea of unfamiliar faces, albeit most of them wearing a big soppy grin, the robodogs at first whimpered a little, but then performed admirably to commands of ‘sit’, responding approvingly to a spot of back scratching and even recognizing their master’s face, which is, after all, all we could really expect from even a real dog.
The new Aibo is supposed to be able to find a bone, dance, and eventually recognize members of your family. According to Sony robo-pup relies on sophisticated sensors and improved AI smarts, can make sense of its environment and is completely revamped for the connected era. And at first sight, it sure is cuddly.
But above all else, it is the robot pups OLED eyes that are surprisingly effective. Multiple Furby reboots have shown us that it’s the eyes that can go drastically wrong, not only entering the uncanny valley but racing through it to end up somewhere a heck of a lot scarier.
The price, however, is a lot less attractive than the eyes. The Japanese release will probably run to over $1,700 (about 198,000 JPY). And that’s not to mention the $26 monthly service fee. But when you think about it, wouldn’t you be paying that in food bills for a real dog anyway?
Over-priced or just a little expensive, the new Aibos are bound to be a huge hit with dog and tech-lovers around the world. Online markets will soon be teeming with the little pups, and especially in China it is expected to become a huge hit. Anyone attempting to sell goods in China should first check out whether or not they need a license, just to be on the safe side.
All in all, the robot pups more or less saved the Sony conference. Our only hope now is that the electronics giant can this time keep it’s mechanical Fido’s alive longer than they did the last batch of Aibos. They, you may recall, suffered a slow, drawn-out death at the hands of the prevailing market forces of the time. And seriously? There’s no pup on Earth that deserves such a fate. Neither robot nor real.