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Nabaztag: A conflicted Wi-Fi rabbit

CNET News.com put the bunny through its paces and found it darn cute, though a bit thin on exciting features. Photos: Wi-Fi bunny hop

Visiting a friend's house during a recent business trip to New York, I had an unexpected and quite shocking run-in with a rabbit.

This was no ordinary bunny. This was a Nabaztag, better known in geek circles as the "Wi-Fi bunny."

It's hard to describe what Nabaztag really is, especially because of its name, which may be the weirdest, least attractive product name since Nintendo's forthcoming video game console, the Wii.

Nabaztag

Nevertheless, the bunny was intensely intriguing, and I found myself bending low over my friend's table staring and prodding at the plastic object. It has a nearly nondescript smooth, white, semi-cylindrical plastic body with a little black painted nose and two black oval eyes. It also has two detachable white ears.

As I would soon find out, a Nabaztag is a fun, if somewhat confounding toy. It's hard to deny its cuteness, and the novelty of a rabbit that can communicate with other bunnies across the globe, but it can be difficult to get it to do what you want, and the Web interface that controls it leaves a lot to be desired.

As I said, Nabaztag is hard to explain. Basically, it's a communications device dressed up as a cute little multimedia plastic bunny that can tell you the time, give you traffic, weather and news alerts, let you know when you have e-mail waiting, play your favorite music and much more.

From New York, I went to San Diego to cover DemoFall, and naturally, Nabaztag was one of the products on display there. Its maker, France's Violet, was at Demo to formally unveil the bunny, and it had three of the little beasts on stage--each flashing colors, their ears spinning happily, and basically being the totally different product during a show of somewhat indistinguishable enterprise-class hardware, online photo-sharing tools and other gizmos and gadgets.

Then I heard that at Nextfest, Wired magazine's futuristic carnaval in New York last month, Violet had brought 100 Nabaztags, lined them up and put on a bunny orchestra.

Enough was enough. I had to have one.

What's in a bunny name?
Next thing I know, a box arrived in the mail, and I had my very own bunny. I unpacked it, plugged it in, went to Nabaztag.com and gave my rabbit a name. It's called LapinLED, a nod to the French word for rabbit if anyone wants to know.

I was very excited. I still didn't entirely understand what LapinLED could do, but those beautiful flashing lights and rotating ears had me beyond eager to find out.

Almost immediately after registering LapinLED and turning it on, it sprang to life.

"Yippee," it shouted at me in a plaintive male British voice that could have belonged to a bit player in "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."

"I've been given a name."

Then it told me it didn't know what I wanted it to do and directed me to the Web site, where I would be able to give it all kinds of instructions and, presumably, commence my new, improved, Nabaztag-oriented life.

So I did as I was told, went to the site, clicked on the "services" tab and began trying to figure out what I could get my new bunny to do.

That's when the trouble began. The first thing that happened was that LapinLED began to whir. Its LEDs flashed. Its ears rotated. And it piped up: "Who am I? I don't have a name. Who are you? I don't know you."

I thought I gave it a name already.

So, figuring I needed help, I clicked on the link to the Nabaztag "survival guide." It came up, but it was in French. It took me about half an hour navigating the site's nooks and crannies before I was finally able to find the English version. Not a good start.

In fact, the Nabaztag Web site is not at all easy to use. It's confusing. It contradicts itself. And its instructions are often uninformative.

Even watching LapinLED do "tai chi" at random times was kind of neat.

The site did offer attitude though.

There's this little tidbit, for example, which is displayed on the site: "Listen here. Just because I'm a rabbit (even a smart one), everyone thinks I have no opinions. Well, I have been given this tiny little square to prove you wrong. So, watch out! Because I'm an opinionated rabbit who knows the importance of expressing his True Self. Read my square and know what it is to be a Communicating Rabbit."

OK.

But what I really wanted was to get my rabbit up and running and rocking my world.

One of the features of a Nabaztag is that it can receive and speak messages sent via the Web site. So when I was informed that I had a message from a bunny named Theobromine, I went to go see who that was. Unfortunately, I was told that it could find no such Nabaztag.

I was beginning to lose my patience.

Coincidentally, my home computer chose this time, more or less, to have its hard drive blow up. Because the Web site was a requirement for getting it to do anything, I had to give up on playing with the bunny for a week or so until I got the machine back.

Flash forward, and I'm playing with the bunny again. Only this time I'm doing so while talking on the phone to a Violet technician named David at the company's offices in Paris.

David was pretty helpful. He convinced me that it actually was possible to get LapinLED to do what it was supposed to do. He even told me that in his office, halfway around the world, he could see that LapinLED was properly connected to the Internet, and could see that he (how do you know if your plastic bunny is a he?) was working correctly.

He pointed out that my news alerts, scheduled for specific times, weren't going off as planned because the bunny was set to Paris time. I fixed that. Sure enough, it began spitting out the latest New York Times headlines. Weather came next, though I'm pretty sure it told me thunderstorms were expected on what was one of the most beautiful days of the year.

He even proved that we could "marry" our bunnies so that when I rotated LapinLED's ears, the ears on his bunny, Cocktail, would rotate the same way. And vice versa.

After being on the phone with David for about half an hour, I had LapinLED doing just about everything he was supposed to do.

The trouble is, I wasn't as impressed as I expected to be. Traffic alerts are fine. Spoken messages from fellow bunny owners are fun. Even watching LapinLED do "tai chi" at random times was kind of neat. And I loved the combinations of blue, red, orange, purple and green LEDs flashing at me all the time.

But ultimately, that's all there is. This is a $150 toy. It flashes. It speaks. But it's a novelty. And despite my initial excitement, I find myself a little underwhelmed.

But I know many people love their bunnies. So please feel free to send a message to LapinLED saying hello.

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