Technology TED Talks

9 covetable characters that blur the line between robot, pet and friend

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Guy Hoffman isn’t just a roboticist — he’s also an animator and a jazz musician. And so as he set out to build robots that communicate with people, he took inspiration from what he learned in animation school and focused on subtle, fluid movements — the kind created by going frame-by-frame. He also took an acting class, so he could think more about how emotions are expressed through movement. And of course, he wanted robots that could enjoy music with him.

Watch today’s talk — Robots with “soul” — to see two of Hoffman’s creations in action. First, there’s Shimon, a robotic marimba player who is able to improvise with a human pianist or freestyle with a rapper. And then there’s Travis, a two-headed robotic speaker that jams to music along with you.

Naturally, Hoffman’s work reminds us of a few prior inventions that attempted to make a robot more like a companion. See them in chronological order below.

Giga Pets
Often credited as the “first virtual pet,” Giga Pets were released in 1997 by Tiger Toys. While the 2-bit graphic keychain critters seem quaint now, they were much-loved at the time for their ability to tell their owners when they were hungry. (Yes, they grew with proper care.) Below, a vintage commercial.

The Furby
For anyone who scoured toystores and braved unthinkable lines during the holiday season of 1998 — in hopes of getting their hands on a Furby  — the concept of an electronic pet will sound familiar. The owl-like robotic toys started out speaking “Furbish.” But over time – with human interaction – they learned bits of English and developed personalities. According to Wikipedia, more than 40 million were sold in their first three years on the market. Hasbro revived Furbies in 2012 – this time with an app that allows people to translate Furbish as well as feed the little guys.


A year after the Furby, Businessweek ran an article about a new offering from Sony – the robotic puppy AIBO. The article opened, “Toshi T. Doi, Sony Corp.’s leading computer engineer, is obsessed with robots. His small, third-floor lab is a breeding ground for robotic pups taking their first wobbly steps, chasing balls, and barking for attention. ‘We’re getting ready for the age of digital creatures,’ says Doi.” These cute pups, which cost more than $2000, lasted through 2005.


AIBO inspired many a robotic dog—the cutest of which was i-Cybie, from Silverlit Toys. I-Cybie could respond to voice commands, a la “wag your tail,” and exhibited what seemed like real emotions. The adorable metal dog could even pick itself up if it fell down. Read this New York Times piece on how this virtual pet arrived in the U.S.


PARO, the “healing robotic seal,” comes to life when you say his name. Thanks to tactile sensors, writes Mashable, he responds to petting and coos excitedly when you rub his forehead. Why was he designed? Japanese company AIST explains on their website that he was created to provide the benefits of animal therapy – reduced stress, emotional stimulation – to people in hospitals and other environments where a real-life pet wouldn’t be allowed. He’s been covered in The New York Times … and tested by Barack Obama.

Who wouldn’t want a miniature dinosaur? In the TED Talk “Caleb Chung plays with Pleo,” the famed toy designer introduces us to Pleo, a robotic dinosaur that acts like a pet. Pleo is curious about the world around it and explores, plays and even learns. The bot responds to touch and, of course, cuddles. Reborn in 2010 as Pleo rb, these bots now have born-in personality traits — think courage and obedience — and go through a four-stage life cycle.


And finally there’s Romo, “your robot friend,” who takes advantage of the powerful processor available in every smartphone. Your iPhone docks into a robotic base that looks a bit like a white and blue tank and, when you download the Romo app, it springs to life — giving you facial expressions and responding to your movements. Romo can be driven, and perform simple tasks, like being your roaming photographer or videographer. Romo was created by childhood pals Keller Rinaudo, Phu Nguyen and Peter Seid, and at TED203, Rinaudo showed what Romo can do. “We think if you’re going to have a robot in your home, that robot should be a manifestation of your imagination,” says Rinaudo in his talk, “A mini robot — powered by your phone.” “We don’t know where the future of robots will go. But what we do know that it isn’t 10 years or $10  billion away … The future of personal robotics is happening today.”