Sony puts Aibo to sleep

It sang, took pictures and sat. But to be a good robot dog, Aibo apparently had to fetch more money.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
3 min read
It's the oldest story in the book: Robotic dog turns up on your doorstop looking cute and winsome, learns a few words and tricks, and then gets canceled just as you've gotten to love it.

As part of its ongoing cost-cutting and reorganization effort, Sony has cut its line of robotic Aibo dogs, along with another, more-expensive, humanoid robot called the Qrio, which was never sold as a product.

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Video: Aibo scrapbook, part I
In 2002, Aibo tried its paw at skateboarding.

According to a company representative, more than 150,000 Aibos have been sold since they went on the market in 1999. But the overall company is in the midst of an historic belt-tightening, and the robotics unit didn't make the cut.

"Our core businesses are electronics, games and entertainment, but the focus is going to be on profitability and strategic growth," said Sony spokeswoman Kirstie Pfeifer. "In light of that, we've decided to cancel the Aibo line."

Sony's $2,000 electronic dog had always fallen more in the gee-whiz category than into the realm of viable mainstream consumer product, though it has helped unleash dozens of lower-tech plastic knockoffs, as well as a few big-brand copycats.

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Video: Aibo scrapbook, part II
In 2003, Aibo's ears got floppy.

On its debut, Aibo was both an early use of Sony technologies such as the Memory Stick and its proprietary embedded operating system, as well as advanced robotics technology from the company's research and development labs.

Over time, the dog became more sophisticated, with the latest version able to speak 1,000 words; react (in theory) appropriately to an owner's commands and motions; keep blogs, complete with pictures taken by cameras behind its eyes; and play music.

The product inspired an online fan base that posted pictures taken by their dogs, which--unsurprisingly, given Aibo's diminutive stature--often tended to be of ankles or table legs.

The demise of Sony's robots do mark a victory of sorts for U.S. robot makers like iRobot. Most U.S. manufacturers years ago decided that little market demand existed for robot companions and instead aimed their research and design efforts at robots that would perform jobs that are mundane, repetitive or too dangerous for humans. Workhorse Technologies, for instance, invented a robot that combs abandoned mine shafts.

"Ever since Rosie from 'The Jetsons,' robots have been the next big thing, but the business case was never there. It is easy to build a robot that is prohibitively expensive," Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot, said in a 2004 interview.

The remaining Aibo robots will continue to be sold at the SonyStyle online store and at other retailers until inventory runs out. Sony will continue to show off the Qrio at shows and other venues, but will not pursue new development.

Pfeifer said the research knowledge gained from the project could find its way into future products but that Aibo and Qrio would not be revived.

The company will provide customer support for the latest version of the Aibo for seven years, Pfeifer added. Which is 49 years in dog years, surely enough to bring those orphaned critters through a comfortable middle age.

CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.