Watching people handle a Pleo, you'd think it was a downy baby bunny. They stroke the robot's rubbery Camarasaurus skin and nuzzle its tiny neck. Though Pleo responds to touch with playful, fluid movements, you won't find a steadily beating heart concealed beneath this toy's bright green shell—only a ball of infrared sensors, motors and circuit boards. The new nervous system.
Pleo, short for Personal Life Enhancing Organism, is the brainchild of Boise's Caleb Chung. Though Chung is also known for inventing the late-'90s phenomenon Furby, he's not at all what you'd expect from a robot inventor; he speaks more on art and philosophy than wires and algorithms. That's because Chung—an ex-mime and stuntman—just kind of fell into the toy industry.
"I missed a part as a beaver on a Zoobilee Zoo show," Chung says. "I had a slow summer and answered an ad in the paper for a toy designer at Mattel."
That's right, the classifieds. Five years later, Chung had invented bestselling toys like the McDonald's Hamburger Snack Maker and had a Rolodex full of choice toy-industry contacts. This would prove helpful after he left Mattel and began formulating ideas for a new creation—not a toy, but a companion.
"We didn't go after a toy really. I mean it was a toy price, but we tried to create something that was alive," explains Chung about creating the Furby. "No one had made any money on the idea of an artificial pet, because what do you do? Well, it's a companion."
But 40 million Furbys—and countless toy-store mobbings—later and the industry was ready to listen. It was clear consumers were looking for something more than a push-button product, a blinky-eyed doll with a zip cord full of pre-recorded phrases. They wanted something engaging and interactive. They wanted a robot.
"Your imagination with a teddy bear or a loved toy creates a whole world that is what I call the 'unlimited bandwidth of the human imagination,'" explains Chung. "Technology can't really do that, but what it can do is ... the basic things that create a belief in life and allow a relationship to flourish. Those things turn out not to be very complicated. You just can't get them wrong."
And though Furby didn't get anything wrong technologically, Chung knew it was time to take the next step. He set out to design a more interactive robopet, a companion that could keep up with the new millennium's increasing technocentrism. Keeping with the old toy industry adage, he knew he also had to make something irresistibly cute, "a homeless pony on an island."
With Pleo a glimmer in his mind, he co-founded the company Ugobe Life Forms and set to work. The company laid out three laws by which their robots would operate: all life forms would feel and convey emotions, they would be aware of themselves and their environment, and they would grow and change over time. Three things, Chung notes, most humans don't do.
"We're not trying to make a toy dinosaur, what we're doing is we're making a living creature out of silicon that has the ability to learn and grow and write its own code," says Chung.
That code is Pleo's operating system, Life OS. It took Ugobe three years and $5 million to come up with the open-source guidelines that direct Pleo's life-like movements. When Pleo is first opened, it goes through a hatching phase that quickly turns into a toddler phase, when it readily learns behaviors based on your interactions. For example, if Pleo randomly growls before you feed it, it will continue that behavior when it's hungry from then on. With audio sensors stowed in its ears, an infrared camera in its mouth and touch sensors covering its body, Pleo records how you treat it and develops a personality. For Chung, the goal was to mirror natural behavior as closely as possible.
"We find that the more we mimic nature, the better things work. When you work a motor really fast, the motor gets hot and it gets inefficient. Our muscles, the same thing happens. You do a bunch of push-ups and that's lactic acid. So your body's saying, 'Hey, don't do that right now because you're not being efficient,'" says Chung. "The programmers did the same thing in Pleo. We had to run a lactic acid code."
Pleo made its debut in December 2007, and during the past year has sold 120,000 units worldwide—without advertising. At Ugobe headquarters in Boise, now consolidated with the office in Emeryville, Calif., developers are tweaking dreaming codes on Pleo 2.0, which can be uploaded through the dino's USB port on pleoworld.com. Though Chung has lived in Los Angeles and San Francisco, he credits Idaho with inspiring his greatest achievements.
"Innovation happens in Idaho, and it stays here for a reason. The 'I' in Idaho for me is innovation because it blends art and science so well together," says Chung. "Both Furby and Pleo happened to me when I moved here ... It's easier to come up with an idea walking on the Greenbelt than driving down the 405."
And though he will only hint at Ugobe's next project—something both smaller and more portable—Chung is optimistic that forthcoming generations will embrace consumer robotics with open arms. As the word "real" becomes increasingly more ambiguous, and social interactions veer toward the virtual realm, it seems that our pals will no longer be defined by their pulse. And maybe that's not such a crazy thing.
"You know there's a saying, 'If it looks like a duck, and walks like a duck, is it a duck?' I think we're really going to: 'If it looks like a duck, and walks like a duck, is it a duck? And why would you care?'"