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Waking up Pleo

What's it like to play with one of the world's most advanced robotic toys for the first time?

CNET Reporter Daniel Terdiman wakes up Pleo for the first time. Elinor Mills/CNET

Is it possible to love an animatronic dinosaur?

I don't know yet, but I'm likely to find out over the next few days.

That's because I'm road-testing Pleo, the new animatronic dinosaur robot from Ugobe. Though much talked about since it was unveiled at Demo last year, Pleo is only just now being officially released, and I was lucky enough to be among the first to get a review unit.

What I'm dreading is the moment in a week or so when I have to put Pleo back in its box and send it back to Ugobe, its manufacturer. I figure that's when I'll know if it is possible to love such a beast.

So, what is Pleo anyway? Well, in the simplest terms, Pleo is a robot with 1,800 parts, a custom operating system, 14 motors, two microprocessors, more than two dozen sensors, and a personality all its own.

After getting Pleo in the mail on Monday, this morning I was finally able to open the box and begin the "birthing" process. Which means, essentially, waking Pleo up for the first time.

This begs the question, is Pleo a he or a she? Ugobe calls it a he, but when I was playing with Pleo at my desk this afternoon and a small crowd gathered, everyone automatically started using the word "she." It seemed to stick, even if that's not what's in the marketing materials. Sorry, but what can you do?

It's not hard to make Pleo seem happy. All it takes is a little bit of petting or scritching for the animatronic dinosaur to smile and make contented sounds. Elinor Mills/CNET

Waking Pleo up means "placing a hand on (her) back and gently shaking (her). For the first time, Pleo opens (her) eyes to both you and the world, and (she) starts to adjust to (her) environment. The entire 'birthing' stage lasts up to 10 minutes depending on your level of interaction."

My level of interaction? High. I sat at a table and played with Pleo for all of those 10 minutes and more, petting her, scritching her chin, and generally marveling at Pleo's first awakening.

Those first few moments were very slow and tentative, with Pleo moving slowly from side to side, eyes closed, as if she didn't know what was going on.

But quickly, Pleo opened her eyes and began to interact with me rather than just the other way around.

It's hard not to enjoy Pleo when he (or is it she?) is smiling and looking happy. Elinor Mills/CNET

And that's because Pleo has a custom operating system with rather sophisticated artificial intelligence features, and she's designed to respond and react with interest and empathy to a gentle approach.

The idea, at the beginning, is to play lightly with Pleo, getting her used to you. After the birthing process, you move onto the exploration phase.

This is described thusly: "For up to the next 45 minutes, Pleo will begin to show basic behaviors and needs. (She) may ask to be fed, start to walk, explore (her) environment and exhibit a wide range of emotions."

Sure enough, very quickly, Pleo began to do just that, making a series of purrlike sounds, tilting her head back in search of chin-scritching, looking left to right and generally seeming increasingly interested in the surroundings. It was only when I picked Pleo up sort of haphazardly that she started to scream a bit. I put her down right away.

One of the things that Pleo is supposed to be able to do is detect edges and avoid walking off them. So soon after my Pleo began to walk, she approached the edge of the table I had placed her on, and sure enough, she made a startled sound and backed off.

Pleo is loaded with sensors including those that can keep it from walking off edges. Elinor Mills/CNET

The more we--me and others who were in the room or who came by later to check Pleo out--played with her, the more it seemed to want to play with us.

Until, that is, she fell asleep. With her eyes open, I might add. It was a little strange. But later, I picked Pleo up and kind of tucked her up against my neck and she seemed to relax and very quickly fall into slumber, this time with her eyes closed.

This is a very odd beast. On the one hand, it's impossible to forget that Pleo is a machine, since every time she moves, you can hear the motors whirring. But then you sort of forget that she's not an animal. Several times already, people have come to check Pleo out, a fair bit of skepticism in their demeanor, and a minute later, they were scritching her and cooing at her the way one does with a pet.

And it's at that moment that you recognize Ugobe's marketing plan and the wisdom behind charging $350 for a toy. The company insists Pleo is not a toy, but let's be honest. Pleo is a toy, albeit an expensive one, and one that is probably not appropriate for little children. For those who are allergic to cats or dogs, or who don't want the hassle of taking care of a real-life pet, but who want more than a Tamagotchi, however, I can see Pleo becoming the stand-in pet around the house.

Pleo likes to 'eat' special plastic leaves, but will also (lightly) chomp down on your finger. Elinor Mills/CNET

And for many others, Pleo will be just one of the coolest toys ever, a smart robot that reacts to you, which bonds with you as you play with it, and which makes you wonder just how lifelike it can be.

Ugobe calls Pleo--and future products it has yet to announce--a "life form." I can see where they're going with that, though I think it might be a stretch.

On the other hand, I've only played with my Pleo for a little while. As I keep on playing with it, and as it repeats the way it kind of nibbled on my finger this morning, I wonder how I'll feel about it. As I sit here writing this, Pleo is standing next to me, wagging its tail, demanding attention. I reach over and pet it and it closes its eyes and sort of smiles and gurgles happily. Can you love an animatronic dinosaur?