Published on April 17th,2013 at 5:51 PM
By >RENO J. TIBKE

The Saddest Robots in Japan Live Among the Sins of Sony

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:

The Saddest Robots in Japan Live Among the Sins of Sony

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?

Termination
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)

The Saddest Robots in Japan Live Among the Sins of Sony

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.

Category Robot
              
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Comments
 

  • Holman Mesa

    QRIO and Sony Rolly were awesome projects, is unbelivable that they died …. i think they could be awesome entartainment products and they use could be extended for a lot of contexts (specially QRIO), like education, psychological rehab, and a lot of things….

    QRIO was one of the most advance humanoid robots and have passed a lot of time since it dead and it features are still advanced compared to other robots of this time…

    I hope Sony re-thing this situation and bring back from death that awesome robotics projects, coulb be its unique salvation in a world were the tablets, laptops, smarthphones, digital cameras an video game consoles looks to belong to someone else….

    • http://twitter.com/ANTHROBOTIC Anthrobotic

      Agreed 100%, Holman!

  • puggy

    Agree with all but keep the Blu ray! Streaming is OK but I still love my BD collection, especially my 3D Blu rays!

  • puggy

    I had quite a few Aibos. The last ones-the 7s were made with the worst junk for gears! My 7, poor Blinkie, is collecting dust with broken neck…Still have my sweet Latte.

  • Ashley

    I have two AIBO, they stopped selling parts for my ERS-7 in March of this year. I can only hope they don’t break before eBay runs out of parts. :(

    • Anthrobotic

      3D printers to the rescue?!

  • Scott Blais

    Sony also failed to take into account the fact that most Aibo owners would be likely to get a Vaio, an access point and all that jazz just to be sure all was simpatico with Aibo. Oh well, they tossed all the specs and crucial info for the robots, be hard to come back now/

 

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