For Pleo the robot dinosaur, a second act in an American life

In 2007 and 2008, the cute and cuddly Pleo was a huge hit. Then its maker went out of business, and the dinosaur disappeared from view. So what is it doing at CES 2014?

A baby is won over by Pleo the robot dinosaur at CES 2014. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

LAS VEGAS -- It was an unforgettable scene: A crowd of smiling people gathered around a table on the show floor watching a charming, animated, and lifelike green robot dinosaur called Pleo for the first time.

Was this CES 2014? No, it was Maker Faire Austin 2007, and Pleo was finally having its public coming out party after first being unveiled at the Demo conference in early 2006.

Wait, though. It was CES 2014. Indeed, if you walk the floor of the Robotics section of the giant consumer electronics trade show here this week, you'll see Pleo, as charming and lifelike (and green) as ever, warming the hearts of the countless people walking by who had never seen it before.

But here's the thing. While Pleo made very big waves in 2007 and 2008 when its manufacturer Ugobe brought it out, it soon faded from view, victim of a horrible economy and Ugobe's failure as a viable business. So what is the adorable dinosaur -- now also sporting pink or blue skin -- doing on the floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center all these years later, being presented as if it is a brand-new product, and clearly convincing many that it is?

Pleo the robot dinosaur at Maker Faire Austin in 2007. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

When I first stumbled across Pleo a couple days ago here, I pretty much did a double-take. I'd heard minor rumblings over the years that it was still being sold, but what I remembered much more was the fact that Ugobe had gone down, and taken Pleo with it. Turns out, though, that except for a few months in the interim, it's been possible to buy a Pleo, albeit not on the shelves of big-name retailers all across the U.S., as had originally been the case.

In fact, I was surprised to learn, Pleo was even at CES last year. But this is a dinosaur that has had to deal with a very different level of attention. It's like a movie star who somehow disappears from view only to return to the silver screen some time later as a supporting actor that no one can quite recall seeing before. You know, that actor from that one movie. What's his name again? He's pretty good, isn't he?

It was striking standing there and watching all these people playing with Pleo, just as impressed with it as I remember being back in 2007. It felt like a time warp. And perhaps it was testament to the fact that a really cool, charismatic robot dinosaur is just as impressive in 2014 as it was in 2007. But how could all these people not remember Pleo from its star turn back before the Great Recession?

According to Derek Dotson, who is manning the Pleo booth at CES this week, Ugobe tried to get funding in late 2009, but couldn't manage it, and eventually folded. At that point, probably in early 2010, the company's intellectual property assets went up for auction, and Jetta, the Chinese company that had been doing Pleo's physical manufacturing bought them, getting "a great deal," Dotson said.

After that, Jetta formed a new company, Innvo Labs, to keep on making and selling Pleo. Dotson said he was the only one from Ugobe who joined Innvo. The new company eventually sold the remaining Ugobe stock of Pleos and then went to work on developing the next version.

Today, while Pleo looks exactly the same on the surface, Dotson said the dinosaur has been essentially rebuilt from the ground up. Now known (at Innvo at least) as Pleo RB, it has new processors, and some new features and is, in Dotson's words "what we always" dreamed.

But really, it's the same. While it has a new longer-lasting battery, improved motors (and as a result, more advanced movements) and some basic voice recognition, it's still more or less the same Pleo. Yet with almost no fanfare.

A crowd gathers to play with Pleo at CES 2014. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

And despite the fact that one person who walked by took one look and said, "Pleo, back from the dead," Dotson told me that at CES this week, maybe four out of 100 people visited the booth had any previous awareness of the dinosaur. "There have been large groups that never heard about it," he said, "which is strange for such a tech-savvy crowd."

When I first found the Pleo booth, I stopped and listened to Dotson's pitch. It sounded so much like what I'd first heard back in 2006 and 2007, yet he didn't for one second mention its past history. My first thought was that Innvo Labs was trying to wave a magic wand and make Pleo's first act disappear into thin air. But when I asked him about it, Dotson talked easily about the past.

How is it that there's such little previous awareness of this once-famous and ground-breaking robot? Dotson thinks it's because Pleo never sold well in a box. If people get to actually play with Pleo, they're instantly won over, he argued. And that's hard to dispute.

So what's going on here. There are other cases (though not that many) of products dying and then coming back to life. WebOS comes to mind. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said there are no second acts in American lives, and that is mostly true in technology as well. But maybe it's not true for green robot dinosaurs. Especially not when it's cuddly, and charming, and has been very much out of sight for quite some time. After all, they also say what's old is new again.

 

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