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The evolution of a dino-bot

Take a look behind the scenes at Ugobe, maker of a robot named Pleo. Could this dinosaur device win your heart? Photos: The birthplace of Pleo

BOISE, Idaho--One of the many details that make Ugobe's new animatronic dinosaur, Pleo, interesting is that owners will soon be able to design custom animations with a development kit.

But before people get their hands on the kit, Ugobe is demonstrating the possibilities with the release of a holiday animation that gets Pleo dancing on her short legs and "singing" a series of holiday songs. While a little hokey, it's actually pretty charming. And more to the point, it illustrates how owners will be able to vastly expand Pleo's repertoire of movements, actions, and behaviors.

Last week I visited Ugobe's research and development lab here and was treated to a rare view of Pleo development in action. All around the lab--which Ugobe cleaned up before my arrival to make sure I didn't see anything not ready for a visit by a member of the media--were Pleo prototypes in various stages of being built up or torn down.

Here, a Pleo with its head missing. There, an unpainted Pleo looking as if it had been turned almost completely inside-out. There was even a small piece of machinery that, upon closer inspection, turned out to be the insides of Pleo's head, complete with her mouth and her human-like eyes, but not much else.

There was a shelf stacked with boards of electronic circuitry that turned out, Ugobe CTO John Sosoka told me, to be different revisions of actual Pleos, minus the body, the motors, gears, and such. Sosoka said the company uses these to test how Pleo will react to various input, as well as to go in with a probe and check voltage levels or check logic without having to build a new Pleo each time.

After being announced at as a $250 "life-form" that would be out by holiday 2006, Pleo's prospects took a significant downturn when Ugobe found that it would have to delay the launch until this year. The company also decided it would have to charge $350 for the dinosaur.

For most products, being a year late and costing 40 percent more than originally announced would likely be a death sentence. But Pleo is not most products, as demonstrated by the slew of mostly positive media coverage it has gotten since it launched earlier this month.

And why? Well, it's a robot dinosaur with a limited artificial intelligence, a custom operating system, and a personality. Plus, it's just awfully charming.

But why the delay?

Sosoka explained that much of it had to do with Ugobe's struggles to find the right battery for Pleo.

The problem stemmed from Ugobe's desire to ensure that Pleo's body could pivot in the middle to allow for a realistic gait while she walks. But the design team members knew that the battery had to fit into the middle part of the body, and so they basically beat their heads against the wall for months, trying to find the right kind of battery that would fit in the right place, yet allow for the body pivot and make for a good consumer experience.

Initially, the idea was to use a nonremovable internal rechargeable battery. But as production got closer, Ugobe discovered in testing that people didn't want to stop playing with Pleo while the battery juiced up.

So, Sosoka explained, the challenge became to come up with a rechargeable, removable battery, much like those found in power tools, that could still be placed in the middle of the body and allow for the required pivot.

"These are all the things that delayed us," Sosoka said, "because it just wasn't right."

Today, Pleo has just that: a removable battery pack that fits right into the middle of the body that can be swapped with a second pack so you never have to stop playing--assuming you remember to recharge your extra battery, that is.

One of the fun things about visiting Ugobe's lab is that every couple of minutes, you hear in the background the sound of a Pleo groaning, or barking, or gurgling. It's kind of funny, and reminds you that the point of Pleo is to be a reactive animal-like robot that responds to its environment. Maybe she just doesn't like humans approaching with voltage meters or hammers. I'm not sure.

A lot of that behavior has to do with Life OS, the custom Pleo operating system that gives the dinosaur her personality and, for example, leads her to gurgle and sigh happily when you pick her up and cradle her. Or, perhaps not as charming, to scream in mild terror when you hold her up in the air without much support.

But as owners will soon see--when Ugobe releases the development kit--the ability to design their own animations means that Pleo's behavior is almost unlimited. It is restricted only by the imagination of those working on the animation files that can then be loaded onto the dinosaur through an SD card inserted into a slot on Pleo's underside.

In addition to the Christmas animation Ugobe just released, it has also put out a "watchdog" animation that will lead Pleo--when someone walks in front of her--to bark out a warning and behave a little like, well, a watchdog.

To demonstrate how this process works, Sosoka took me a few blocks away to the offices of a small company called R Squared Digital Media that Ugobe contracted to help design the countless animations that an out-of-the-box Pleo does, as well as the new ones that will be released via the Pleo community Web site, Pleoworld.

There, R Squared's Eric Regner demonstrated how he used software like Excel and 3DS Max to design the animations. It's really quite a simple process and involves calculating the various angles of movement you would want for Pleo's limbs, stringing them all together, and then exporting them into 3DS Max. Once the coordinates are plugged in and the animation is programmed, it is then exported directly to Pleo and, voila, a dinosaur that dances and sings Christmas carols.

While the Christmas animation is the first of its kind, it's clear that Ugobe plans to release themed animations from time to time as a way of keeping the audience engaged. And that seems smart, especially along with letting owners post their own custom-designed animations on the community site.

To be sure, Ugobe is keeping some form of control over the animation design process since no one at the company is eager to see Pleo porn on YouTube. How the company will keep that from happening is not entirely clear. Either way, what is clear is that Ugobe is committed to letting people hack Pleo--particularly because if one thing is evident these days, it's that users are going to hack your product. So why not embrace that activity rather than deny it?

In addition, while Ugobe will almost certainly develop other animal robots in the future, it is still hard at work on Pleo, despite the dinosaur finally hitting the market.

That has a lot to do with what the company wasn't able to get in the shipping version of Pleo, Sosoka said, and what it would still like to see down the road.

"This is 1.0," Sosoka said. "There are a lot of things we were working on that were working pretty well, but weren't quite there. So, in future downloads, (different Ugobe employees) each have different features we'd really like to include."

And while Ugobe will release its own development kit for Pleo, it is also going to invite members of the robotics community who have worked on their own tools to make them available. So, for example, people who built tools for adding new behaviors to robots like Sony's Aibo will be able to apply those tools to Pleo down the road.

Before I left the lab, I asked Sosoka why Ugobe had settled on the rubbery skin it used for Pleo, particularly because it is not necessarily the most charming material that could have been used.

"I think that's one of the hardest things" that had to be solved in developing Pleo, Sosoka said.

He explained that the skin had to be strong enough to hold up to endless physical and hands-on play, flexible enough that it doesn't impede the animation and, finally, able to be able to take the special Pleo paint.

He also reminded me that at the Maker Faire in Austin in October, Ugobe had shown off a Pleo covered in a white fur.

And that may indeed be where Pleo is headed. It's too early to tell, and Sosoka wasn't making any promises. But he hinted that Pleo may well have a future that includes other kinds of skin.

"I think we'll probably see a lot of skin treatments" for Pleo, he said.