We want one: Renewing a vow to make entertainment robots a viable business, Sony has taken the wraps off an improved version of its Aibo entertainment robot.
The new ERS-210 model, shipments of which will begin in December, is based on the appearance of a baby lion and features more movement and sensors than the first model, a greater range of emotions, limited voice recognition and the ability to take digital photographs.
The robots can now be given a name to which they will respond and, as they develop, will be able to understand up to about 50 words, according to Sony executives at a Tokyo press conference held to unveil the new product. The voice recognition will tie in with another new feature - the digital camera. Users just need say "take a photo" and the robot will snap a picture of what it can see with a colour camera built into its nose.
Other significant differences lie in the way data is transferred from a personal computer to the robot. Sony has installed a Memory Stick slot and also equipped the device with a wireless LAN (local area network) adapter. In addition to simple data control, the latter also allows for real-time control of the Aibo through a PC.
The technical enhancements are all aimed at making Aibo a more intelligent robot and improving user interaction, but perhaps the most significant difference lies in the marketing strategy.
The company is keen to make entertainment robots into a real business and as such has formed an autonomous division, the "Entertainment Robot Company," to focus on both hardware and software development and lead the company's charge into this new market.
The first big change is the price. Sony has brought this down considerably, from 250,000 yen to 150,000 yen (around £1,800 to around £1,000) for the new model.
It will also be available continuously, unlike last time, when Sony restricted the number of robots available or limited the time during which they could be ordered. Consumers can begin placing orders from November 16, with first shipments arriving in early December.
Aibo is also being taken on the street. Department stores and shops such as Sony Plaza will establish Aibo areas within their stores where users can experience the robots first hand and play with them. For many consumers, this will be their first opportunity to see the robot in real life.
Sony is betting the combination of the lower price, continuous availability and their presence in shops will boost sales - higher sales are vital if Sony is to make entertainment robots into a profitable product line and grow the business. Executives were unwilling to provide any sales estimates, although they did say the Nagano, Japan, factory where Aibo is made has a maximum capacity of 60,000 units per month.
Sony first put Aibo on sale in June 1999 and made headlines after selling 5,000 of the devices in minutes through its Web site, despite their £2,000 price tag.
More were put on sale in November last year. Then, the company agreed to accept all orders for a limited period and then dole out the 10,000 available robots by lottery. It was the November sale that woke the company up to something that had been missed during the June sale - the vast majority of the demand for Aibo was from Japan and not overseas. Of the 135,000 orders received, 132,000 orders came from Japan, 2,000 from North America and 1,000 from Europe.
Aibo went on sale for the third time in February. All orders were honored but had to be received within a 10-day period.