Sony keeps tight reign on software for virtual dog

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“Here, Aibo, here Aibo. Good dog! Where’s your ball?”
Put in the name of your choice, and it’s a greeting pet owners world-wide probably issue on a regular basis. But Aibo is different. You don’t have to walk him, he needs no shots, and subsists on a diet of, well, direct current.
Aibo is the $1,300 computer-brained plastic dog Sony says is the perfect answer for apartment dwellers who want a pet, but can’t have live one.
“It’s a merger of technology and intelligence,” said Sony spokesman Jeremiah Raxter, as he puts the three-pound plastic pup through his paces in a demonstration for journalists. The danderless dog chases his ball, much to the delight of a few toddlers at a local SoundTrack store.
Aibo’s computer can learn up to 75 voice commands with its second-generation artificial intelligence engine. He can learn his environment and scamper around much like a live pet, even if his movements seen a bit robotic. Aibo can express emotions, read your e-mail to you, snap digital pictures through his camera eyes, track objects such as his pink ball, and make his own decisions. And, he can’t ruin the leg of your favorite chair. The most damage he can do is to emit a few stray radio waves.
Aibo is modular, and can easily be upgraded as new technology emerges, said Raxter. Additionally, Sony is letting other companies make modular parts and write software for the whimpering whelp. Don’t like his head, just snap it off and replace it with a different one. Additionally, several memory sticks are available to drive the droid through a series of different actions.
Sony also sells a number of software kits, usually for about $150, that allow Aibo users to modify the dog’s behavior. Computer-savy Aibo owners took such a liking to their pets that they started writing software instructions to make it dance to special tunes and perform dozens of other tasks not available on stock Sony programming.
One intrepid puppy programmer even started a website so owners could share programs and information.
Sony moved quickly to quash www.aibohack.com, although the site is now active again. The software tools removed from the web site are easier to use and more powerful, according to users – and are available for free. Aibo owners were outraged, and hundreds vowed to stop buying Sony products unless the company backed off. It did, and the site now has re-installed the programs it was forced to remove.
Sony has sold more than 100,000 Aibos worldwide since 1999, at prices ranging from $800 to $3,000.
Bob Harting, a Santa Monica potter, has programmed his three Aibos — Sparky, Agent Aibo and Aibojangles — to perform a syncopated dance routine to Madonna’s “Vogue.”
“It’s just impossible to do this sort of thing with the Sony tools,” Harting told The New York Times. “I have bought every accessory made for the Aibo, and nearly every bit of equipment in my apartment – television, VCRs, computers – is from Sony,” Harting said. “But I’m not comfortable giving them more money until this is resolved.”
The man behind Aibohack.com, who goes by the screen name Aibopet and asked to not be identified in the Times article, removed the contested material from the site, leaving it largely empty. He said he incorporates Sony’s code into his programs but that no one is harmed. The programs give Aibo owners the ability to manipulate their robot dogs, but only if the user has a legitimate copy of Sony’s software. He said that Sony benefits from his work because it generates consumer enthusiasm for Aibo.
Before Aibohack.com went down, it saw 400 to 600 visitors a day, many who downloaded Aibopet’s tools. One of the programs, AiboScope, wirelessly transmits images from the robot’s camera to a computer. Another, Disco Aibo, programs Aibo to dance when it hears a specific song. The most recent program is Brainbo, which combines voice-recognition software with a library of answers to various questions. Users can ask the robot a question, and it will pull from the database to lip sync an answer.
Aibopet said he has posted more than 1,500 comments, tips and answers to Aibosite.com in the last two years.
“I guess you could call it a hobby, but it has gotten a little out of control at times. I just enjoy programming,” Aibopet said. “Looking at the last two years, I probably spent more time doing unpaid technical support for Sony than I have playing with my dog. But it’s been rewarding. I’ve met people throughout the world.”
The precocious plastic pups are available at area SoundTrack stores.