Sony expands Aibo's options
By Martyn Williams
(IDG) -- Are you in the market for a pet robot? Sony could have just what you're looking for.
The company is planning to boost its pet robot business by launching a range of new Aibo robots at different prices and also by licensing the basic hardware and software specifications to other companies.
Sony hopes the moves will result in cheaper prices for consumers and more people buying Aibo robots. At present the company's typical customers are 30-something males, but new Aibo models are aimed at expanding the customer base.
New Aibo models are expected to appear later this year or early next year. The company is looking at both new top-end models with extra features and low-end models designed for teens.
Aibo's role in a Janet Jackson music video last year and the large number of inquiries that followed has already proved to Sony that it has a large potential market among young people if only the price were right, says Yoshinao Kambe, assistant manager of international marketing at Sony's Entertainment Robot Company division. Aibo currently sells for $1225 -- well out of the price range of most teens.
"If we release a low-budget model it will definitely extend Aibo to the kids and teenage market," Kambe says. "They really like it, but it is still too expensive. Usually in the U.S., the [price] limitation [for a teen] is $200 to $300. We were thinking about [that price], but it's quite impossible -- this is a robot."
The company also has already started talking to software developers with a view to licensing the Aibo architecture so that developers can produce their own controller software, says Kambe.
The plans, which represent a major push by Sony to turn its entertainment robot business into a profitable enterprise, were made possible by a basic design change implemented when Sony upgraded Aibo in October 2000, the first since Sony launched Aibo in May 1999.
From the heart
From the outside, the differences are largely cosmetic -- the new robot is based on a baby lion -- and even the technical differences seem like largely gadget-level upgrades, such as the ability to take snapshots with its built-in digital still camera. However, the launch of the ERS-210 signified a much more important change that could not be seen from the outside.
The internal structure of the robot was redesigned so that the heart of the machine was encased in a black plastic box. This box, much like the body and brains of a human all rolled into one, is the core of Aibo and contains its central processor, main memory, battery, and other key devices. The legs, head, and tail that gave Aibo its unique and cute look were simply clipped onto the core.
The switch to this modular construction lies at the heart of Sony's robot strategy. The plastic control box will form a common heart at the center of future products, and robots will differ by the parts that are clipped onto the box.
"Based on [the central core] anybody outside the company has a chance to create their own shape of robot," Kambe says. "If they want to have a monkey or pig, they can make it based on our basic standard and application."
Aibo owners will also benefit from the ability to change their pet's appearance for minimal cost by purchasing a new head, for example, without having to buy a completely new robot.
The company has yet to sign hardware licensing agreements with other companies, but with the central core unit as a base, building extra parts such as legs or heads would be easy, Kambe says.
Plans to license the Aibo control software specification are at a more advanced stage. Sony is already in talks with a number of game software developers to license its Open-R software architecture, Kambe says. Open-R was developed by Sony for use in Aibo and both the original and second-generation robots incorporate the system.
The first software applications written by third-party developers for Aibo are likely to be game-based, allowing Aibo to perform tricks or play games, and are expected on the market next year.
"In the future, we are dreaming about several manufacturers making their own shape of hardware [legs and parts] and then gaming companies releasing new types of software," Kambe says. "For this business to be really successful, we need several kinds of heads and legs."
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