Sony Corp. is bringing back its iconic robotic dog, aibo.
The new version (which Sony is marketing as “aibo” instead of the prior “AIBO”) comes equipped with a powerful computer chip, OLED displays for eyes and the ability to connect to mobile networks. Like its predecessor, the new pet toy responds to voice commands and can bark, sit and wag its tail. It’s small enough to be picked up and has rounder edges. Pre-orders for the Japan-only 198,000 yen ($1,740) gadget begin Wednesday, with shipments starting Jan. 11.
The AI-enabled canine is another sign of Sony’s willingness to take new risks. After a deep restructuring that gutted its workforce and product lineup, the electronics maker now expects to report its highest-ever operating profit this year. Chief Executive Officer Kazuo Hirai, who has been working on turning the Tokyo-based company around since 2012, has encouraged engineers and marketers to come up with new ideas, from digital aroma dispensers and self-flying drones, to 3-D sensors that can see the world.
“Sony’s mission, and reason for existence, is to be a company that piques people’s curiosity,” Hirai said at a press conference in Tokyo. “I’m convinced that a robot that can connect with a family, and give them a joy, is an embodiment of Sony’s mission, and therefore asked for the development of aibo a year and a half ago.”
The biggest change is that the new iteration will be more intelligent and proactively interact with its owner. The technology is based on work done by Sony-backed Cogitai Inc., an Anaheim, California-based startup developing AI software that learns continually from real-world interactions. While the new web-connected aibo employs AI, it’s meant to be more of a companion or a pet toy, rather than a digital assistant such as Amazon.com Inc.’s Echo or Google’s Assistant. The word “aibo” means companion, or buddy, in Japanese.
The first version of the robotic pet dog debuted in 1999, and Sony stopped making them in 2006 as the company refocused its businesses. The original was advanced for its time, responding to commands and meant to recognize its owners. It could bark, sit up, lie down, wag its tail and play with toy balls.
With the new aibo, which has a SIM card slot for mobile internet access, Sony plans to connect it to other gadgets and home devices. It can also be used for educational purposes, home security and as a personal assistant, the company said. Outside developers will also be able to create applications for the new digital pet, which can be downloaded from an app store being developed by Sony.
Apart from the cost of the new aibo, all users will be required to sign up for a service plan of 90,000 yen upfront for three years, or 2,980 yen month-by-month. Sony is aiming to sell more of the devices, exceeding the previous generation’s 150,000 units, according to Izumi Kawanishi, executive vice president.
Owners of the new aibo will also be able to buy a plastic bone, or “aibone” for the robotic dog, for 2,980 yen. That’s not the only pun. It’s no coincidence that the gadget debuted on Nov. 1 and ships from Jan. 11, because “1-1-1” sounds the same as the Japanese expression for a dog’s bark: “wan-wan-wan.”
— With assistance by Pavel Alpeyev