Robot rabbit reads RSS feeds out loud

The Nabaztag Wi-Fi bunny performs some amazing tricks. Are Americans ready for this French desktop companion? Photos: From Ambient Orb to wired bunny

The Nabaztag Smart Rabbit wants to multiply in the U.S.

The new device, introduced in June to the U.S. market, uses a Wi-Fi connection and text-to-speech software to read things like RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds, e-mails and weather reports out loud.

The creator of the plastic rabbit, Violet, seems to have taken the idea of the Ambient Orb and run with it. Instead of just changing colors in relation to the data fed into it, as the Orb does, the Nabaztag rabbit actually talks to you, becoming a verbal companion to your personalized Internet.

"We started three years ago...with a Wi-Fi lamp, but people seemed more interested in verbal information," Olivier Mével, co-founder of Violet, said in an interview. "It meant for us this new kind of object connected to the Internet--not only an object that could display information, but also objects used to communicate with SMS (Short Message Service), phone and chat. It was also an emotional messenger. You can send love messages or whatever to whomever you want."

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The Nabaztag rabbit is currently available for purchase in the U.S. from ThinkGeek, or directly from Nabaztag.com, for $149.99. While the Nabaztag will work with any Wi-Fi network, it does need to be plugged into an electrical outlet for power. Once the Nabaztag rabbit is connected, its owner registers it online, gives it an official name, and chooses one of the subscription services designed to work with it.

Basic services--an alarm-clock feature, weather reports, stock updates and e-mail alerts--are free. Premium services, such as reading e-mails and RSS feeds or playing MP3s, range in price from $5 to about $7.50 a month. Service options for the American market are being rolled out gradually. As of August, for example, U.S. Nabaztag owners have been able to receive text messages and voice mail from any mobile phone.

Owners specify the time of day they would like the Nabaztag to "come to life." They also determine whether e-mails or RSS feeds are read as they are received or at certain times of day. The device can be set to simply light up when new feeds and e-mail arrive.

Nabaztag owners can subscribe to Nabcasts, Webcasts done by community members for free. Some of them, like the "never-ending bedtime story," are geared toward children.

Each Nabaztag owner has the option to "marry" one rabbit with another, allowing the two devices to mimic each other's movements. If you are thinking of your partner and want to signal your thoughts, moving your rabbit's ears will cause the same movements on your partner's rabbit simultaneously. The rabbits can be located anywhere in the world.

Ambient Devices, the maker of the Ambient Orb and other smart objects, has had the European version of the Nabaztag for almost nine months.

"In a nutshell, we love it. Anything that embeds computation in things, any objects that aren't computers--or don't look like computers--we think is great," said Benjamin Resner, vice president of technology for Ambient Devices. "The market for smart connected objects is so unsaturated that there's room for everyone. We think the Wi-Fi bunny coming in will educate people that a decorative device can have data and will get people to look at objects differently."

The Nabaztag rabbit was originally released in France in June 2005. Since then, Violet has expanded distribution to include the U.K., Belgium and Switzerland, although people in many other countries are buying the device online, according to Mével.

Some Nabaztag users in France have created their own online community with a MySpace.com-like atmosphere in which they share photos of their smart rabbit and its environment.

Some Nabaztag members also have been orchestrating flash-mob-type happenings. Up to 100 people often show up with smart rabbits in tow, according to Mével. There are photos of the events on the Nabaztag Web site.

Violet has coordinated a smart rabbit opera. The rabbits, which can be programmed to move their ears and light up in response to music, moved together with the music written especially for the occasion. The same type of thing is planned for October in New York.

"What is very funny is the communication online. People are ready and interested. We've sold 50,000 rabbits," Mével said. "People are totally crazy. One guy in Texas jumped from the airplane with his Nabaztag and sent video footage of it."

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