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Pleo will change the toy game

The realism of the animatronic dinosaur is hard to believe, and when it becomes available, it is going to set the toy industry on its ear.

AUSTIN, Texas--Every so often, a product comes along that just changes the game. The iPhone. The Segway. The Roomba.

Get ready to add the Pleo to that list.

A row of five prototype Pleos at the Maker Faire in Austin, Texas on October 19, 2007. These Pleos are not final production models, though they are very close. Daniel Terdiman/CNET Networks

The animatronic dinosaur Pleo is hotly anticipated to hit the market next year and it's already possible to pre-order one for $349. What makes this toy such a game changer is that it is so amazingly lifelike that it's hard not to treat it like it's real.

I first saw the Pleo at Demo '06. Back then, the toy was expected to be available by the 2006 holidays and to cost $200. So much for that plan. With that in mind, some healthy skepticism is warranted as to whether the toy's maker, Ugobe, can get it out any time soon.

'Make' magazine editor-in-chief and Boing Boing co-editor Mark Frauenfelder pets a Pleo at Maker Faire in Austin. The Pleo has sensors that allow it to walk to the edge of a table and stop before it falls off. Daniel Terdiman/CNET Networks

Still, this is one amazing toy. I played with it for a few minutes today during the final afternoon of preparations for Maker Faire in Austin, which begins Saturday and will continue through Sunday. It was totally charming. The Pleo has dozens of sensors, sensitive to light, to touch, and to edges, and so its behavior is somewhat akin to that of a pet.

It's not a pet, of course, but when you play with it, patting its head, or scratching its chin, and the little dinosaur purrs contentedly or tilts its head back in seeming bliss, it's hard not to believe it's alive.

A Pleo reacts with obvious pleasure and happiness when its chin is scratched. Daniel Terdiman/CNET Networks

So, I have little doubt that when it finally is for sale, it is going to set the toy industry on its ear. Consumers will be blown away by what it can do and how it behaves. Ugobe is going to take a further step toward making it fantastic by letting owners download new sounds onto it and to modify it with custom behaviors. (Thus, it really is a suitable product to exhibit at Maker Faire.)

Ugobe brought a bunch of Pleos, some of which are wearing green tags around their necks to designate them as "A-list performers," according to Ugobe employee Prema Polit. That means, she explained, that the green-taggers can be counted on to do what they're supposed to, move as expected, react as designed, and so forth. By the time they're released, of course, the company will ensure that all Pleos are A-listers.

Whether the amazement it generates will translate into huge sales is another question. The $349 price is pretty steep, even for such a lifelike creature, because, despite its realism, it can't do that many things.

I love it, though, and I want one. I'm not sure what I would do with it, particularly because I'm pretty sure my cat would have harsh words for it.

You can Daniel Terdiman/CNET Networks

But here's hoping Pleo is available soon. I'm really looking forward to seeing how people react; I expect a collective dropped jaw.