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Will computer pets replace Fido?

June 20, 1997
Web posted at: 10:47 p.m. EDT (0247 GMT)

By Steven L. Kent

Why do people like pets?

Sure, big dogs can protect you, and some cats chase mice, but if that's what pets are for, how do you explain poodles? How do you explain Great Danes, for that matter? They may look scary, but you'd get more protection from a goldfish.

I used to believe people loved their pets because their pets loved them, but that doesn't explain specialty pets. How exactly does a pet scorpion show it cares? They do not wag their tails. You certainly wouldn't want a hug from your boa.

I'm not particularly interested in bringing spiders, snakes, scorpions, large lizards or man-eating fish into my home. Which brings us to one of the latest trends in owning pets: These are neither alive nor real; they're cyberpets.

The biggest news in cyberpets is Tomaguchi, the digital chicken from Japan. A plastic toy about the size of a key chain, it has a liquid crystal screen that shows an egg. Take care of the egg and a little chicken hatches on the screen.

Once it hatches, Tomaguchi needs love, care and digital food to stay alive. If it's ignored, Tomaguchi dies, and a gravestone appears on the screen.

Tomaguchi may be cute, but it is fairly simple stuff compared to Fin Fin, a new artificial life form for PC computers from Fujitsu.

What is an artificial life form? In Fin Fin's case, an artificial life form is something that eats, drinks, fishes, sleeps, gets irritated by insects and learns new behaviors. Fin Fin has moods and emotions. He can even hear when you speak, watch you move and listen to you whistle.

He's also a bit bizarre. Fin Fin, it turns out, is half bird, half dolphin. He has a stalky sparrow-like body, a dolphin's snout, penguin wings and pudgy, pudgy claws.

An online relationship

To get to know Fin Fin you must purchase Fin Fin on Teo, the Magic Planet, a software package that comes bundled with a "SmartSensor" that tracks sound and motion. (The SmartSensor requires a joystick port.)

You don't just play with Fin Fin, you establish a relationship. With that in mind, you have to log in some information before getting started. Fin Fin wants to know your name, age and birthday. Once you've done that, you can meet him on Teo, an Amazonian planet with strange creatures.

You begin your relationship by visiting the Amile Forest, a scenic spot from which you can see much of Teo. Your screen is like a window, and you cannot move around or change your view. Fortunately, you can change locations by returning to the main menu.

Fin Fin generally is absent when you first arrive at Amile, but don't worry, the curious little animal will come. And this is where the artificial-life part comes in.

Fin Fin needs to decide whether or not he likes you before he does anything else. You can help establish your relationship by cooing and speaking softly into the SmartSensor and offering fruit. To do this, you simply press on your space bar, and the fruit appears.

Fin Fin likes the fruit, though he's shy about taking it from strangers. Just don't scream in the sensor or make any fast moves and he'll warm up to you.

Don't forget the fruit

Once you've established a relationship with Fin Fin, he'll show you around Teo. You can journey to the Tsubu Woods and the Secret Inlet. If Fin Fin isn't there, you can call him by blowing on a whistle that accompanies the software.

Just remember, always bring those fruits. Fin Fin likes his fruits.

There is a bit of disagreement regarding Fin Fin on Teo, the Magic Planet, in my house. I find Fin Fin a bit dull and have no interest in establishing a lifelong relationship with him.

My 5-year-old daughter, on the other hand, thinks Fin Fin is pretty neat. She spent an entire evening with Fin Fin, following him around and getting to know him. She's asked for permission to play him several times, and I think they're great pals.

In an age of technology, I suppose it was only a matter of time before people started trying to bond with machines and digital images. Fin Fin and Tomaguchi may be among the first steps on that twisted path.

(c) 1997, Steven L. Kent. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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