By >RENO J. TIBKE
The Saddest Robots in Japan Live Among the Sins of Sony
Google Me This: What Ever Happened to Sony’s Robots?
Okay, check it out: so there’s this massive, global technology company, and about 14 years ago they decide to make a few robots. Turns out they create some really smart, cutting-edge, super-tech devices: a doggy robot, and a toddler-sized android. But then they give up after only 7 years – in fact, last month marked the end of the giant corporation’s obligation to provide support, service, and parts for one of the most iconic robots ever created. Off-hand you might not know their names, but almost anyone with electricity will recognize these two:
On the left is Sony’s approximately 12-inch (29cm) tall AIBO robotic dog (Artificially Intelligent RoBOt). It went on sale in 1999, and the first run of 3000 sold out in less than an hour. According to their own figures, in total Sony moved about 150,000 AIBOs across 8 product iterations, which is not bad for a US $2000 robot toy.
To doggy’s right is the approximately 24-inch (60cm) tall android QRIO (Quest for CuRIOsity). This project began in 2000, and while it never went on sale, as a research & demonstration platform it was and remains one of the world’s most advanced bipedal robots. Only three years into the project, QRIO was able to run (defined by locomotion involving both feet simultaneously leaving the ground), thus besting Honda’s then already 10+ years of biped research (e.g., ASIMO and its precursors).
Sony developed a range of original software applications and hardware innovations for the completely unique and unprecedented robots. Both AIBO and QRIO could function autonomously, and their artificial intelligence suite included location awareness & autonomous navigation, personality development, speech, voice and facial recognition with recall, touch sensors, and multimedia collection and sharing capabilities. So yeah, well done, good work people! Right?
Well… ultimately it didn’t matter that Sony’s Intelligence Dynamics Laboratory had quickly and effectively developed two of the world’s most widely recognized and technologically advanced robots; it made no difference that with AIBO they’d created the most sophisticated consumer robot ever (and arguably best-selling), and it didn’t matter that, at relative super-speed, with QRIO they’d successfully demonstrated a state of art research & marketing android who was, according to their own promos, “Sony Group’s Corporate Ambassador.”
The significance of IDL’s achievements was ignored; sadly, Sony’s unimpressed and apparently unmovable killjoy bean counters just weren’t feeling it. In what now seems an overzealous and short-sighted attempt to reign in costs and frivolous R&D diversification, on January 26, 2006 the press-release obituary went public: Sony’s advanced robotics projects were canceled indefinitely.
Why, Sony? Why?
With sales & profits at all-time highs, they were actually doing quite well at the time. But, that curmudgeonly British guy had been put in charge, and they’d already committed to some restructuring and fat trimming. Apparently the company’s robotics initiatives, despite their success and all-around awesomeness, were judged too chubby to keep around.
Quoted at the time, a Sony spokesperson said:
“Our core businesses are electronics, games and entertainment, [AUTHOR’S NOTE: By the way, in the case of robotics that’s check, check, and check.] but the focus is going to be on profitability and strategic growth. [ANOTHER ONE: R&D costs money & takes time, sister! And strategic growth? Oh yeah, because that whole robots thing is just a fad.] In light of that, we’ve decided to cancel the Aibo line.” (QRIO research was chopped at the same time)
Sony robots do still exist. On YouTube, anyway. Oh yeah, and there was also the 2007 US $400 egg-shaped Rolly music player thingy. Rolly was a pseudo-robotic, fantastically useless, impossible-to-understand-why-it-was-brought-out-of-prototype money pit that nobody ever wanted. There you go.
So, How’d That Restructuring and Fixin’ Work Out, Sony?
Okay sure, the 20/20 of hindsight blah blah blah… but 7 years later we can now clearly see how essential eliminating their advanced robotics projects was to streamlining and revitalizing the fabulously profitable and innovative brand that is Sony… except for the fact that everything you just read is the complete opposite of reality. With the exception of TVs, cameras, and the PlayStation, these days we technodorky observers can but roll our eyes at nearly every product Sony plops out. They’ve pretty much been on a continuous slide since the robots were canceled. They actually lost over a billion dollars $US in each fiscal quarter of 2011. While last year’s losses probably won’t be nearly as bad (probably), that whole thing were a business actually makes money is not currently part of the Sony landscape.
So what we got here is this: Sony executed AIBO & QRIO in the midst of record revenue & profit, and that embarrassingly misplaced effort at austerity did effectively nothing positive. It did, however, very successfully destroy two highly advanced and respected robotics projects that even 7 years ago had as much potential as some of today’s most advanced work. Sony still bit the dust and has been eating dirt salad every since.
Would canceling the cancellation have done a whole lot to prevent Sony’s ongoing fiscal flaccidity? Probably not, but still – they axed two of the best robots in the history of history in favor of cranking out 26 more variations of the VAIO and continually investing in the weirdly fetisishistic PSP road to nowhere. Not well done, guys.
Unwanted & Probably Unqualified but FREE Advice to Sony from We Here in Realityland:
Hi, Sony. How’s it going? Yeah, I feel you. Okay, now shhhh. Here’s the thing: you gotta remember and respect that there’s a sweet spot between playing technological jazz and straight-up reading the music. Until you get that figured out again, here are all the answers you need – and you’re welcome in advance:
1. Murder the PSP and all associated software & hardware ASAP. Nobody wants that.
2. Cut the inexplicably bloated range of VAIO computers from 57 to 5. Nobody wants that either.
3. Focus on making just ONE good smartphone, and just ONE good tablet. We’ve all been waiting for you.
4. Memory Stick, UMD, DAT, and MD. Stop doing stuff like that, and begin divorce proceedings with Blu-Ray.
Now, with some of that huge stack of money you’ll save from taking the above to heart, go do magic – do what what Sony used to do – then get the band back together and make with the robots already.
Reno J. Tibke is the founder and operator of Anthrobotic.com and a contributor at the non-profit Robohub.org.