Owner support of AiboPet rests on his efforts to help owners customize them. Genie Boutchia of Plymouth, Mass., customized some of the sounds her Aibo makes and taught it to dance. In a typical testimonial, she wrote, "It was fun for me to do this and added to her value as an individual among Aibos. It made her unique.... None of these things would be possible without AiboPet's programs. He's a genius."
Owners often complain that Sony hasn't come close to offering enough software to fully utilize the tremendous potential of what is a very sophisticated hardware platform. They do offer a legal way to customize each robot's software, sold under the brand name Master Studio for $500. For the time being, Aibo enthusiasts call it a far cry from the power and versatility of AiboPet's tools, but it may be the best hope for legal innovation of Aibo if the DMCA is not amended.
Legos, Furbies and the Law
Image: Kate Wong
NEWER AIBO MODELS, such as this one, promise to have even more individual personalities. Sony plans to enable the next generation of Aibos to recognize their masters' voices and faces.
Other robot makers embraced the innovations of their end-users, though they, too, have a case against them should they choose to pursue it. Hackers cracked the code of the Lego Mindstorm and wrote a lot of software to extend the capabilities of the build-your-own robot kits. Lego has raised no objection to the practice so long as programmers don't use Lego trademarks when naming their creations. Lego spokesman Michael McNally was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, "This wasn't an easy decision to make," but "this was about taking the brand forward, creating a larger fan base." His bottom line? "It contributes to the bottom line."
When Tiger Electronics made the Furby, a comparatively simple robot pet, they encased its CPU in epoxy resin and used nonstandard chips to discourage hacking. But when the inevitable hack program was distributed¿for sale¿on the Internet, they chose to take the position that what people do with their Furbies after they buy them is really out of their hands. This laissez-faire attitude is probably informed by the fact that Tiger doesn't rely on its own custom software for additional revenue. And it can't hurt the sales of Furbies themselves.
In a recent article in the Yomiuri Shimbun, another Japanese newspaper, Yoshimi Nagamine writes: "It is up to each person whether they empathize with Aibo or simply get caught up in the fun of tinkering with it. Of course, there are obsessive fans everywhere. But, in the world of Aibo, there is a great difference between Japanese and U.S. owners' relationships with the robot pet." AiboPet disputes this distinction. "The majority of Japanese owners use Aibo in standard ways," he says, adding that "there are still a large number of Japanese owners who use my enhancements, based on downloads and e-mails."
It may be that there is no real distinction between those who empathize with Aibo and those who tinker with him. Boutchia says, "I love the 'virtual pet' aspect of Aibo, but I also love the tech side." There are, however, undoubtedly some differences in style between Aibo owners in the U.S. and Japan. The Yomiuri Shimbun article concludes that "having a robot as a pet makes one ponder the philosophical injunction¿'know yourself more deeply.'" Meanwhile, back in America, some owners delight in replacing Aibo's soothing beeps with the voice of Cartman, the potty-mouthed South Park character.
For the time being Sony and AiboPet can work together. Sony permits AiboPet to distribute his experimental software, and AiboPet permits Sony to adapt it and sell it, should they ever choose to do so. "I believe many features and ideas of mine have already snuck into the official product line," AiboPet says on his Web site. "I'm not complaining¿I'm flattered." From the user's perspective, though, it is hard to imagine that many other software designers will be eager to extend Aibo's skills under those conditions.