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 PAST ISSUES
774: Too hot to trot
770-71: High touch Nokia
766: Bone up on Nihongo the smarter way
762: Catch-up game
758: Pocket powerhouse
754: Corn Celly
750: Solar sensation
746: Branding boiled down
742: Virtually real
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734: Apple attack
730: Miike mouse
726: Touch me, I want your data
722: Aargh—pirates scuppered
718-19: Movies on your Ninty
714: Red PSP
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686: Pioneer’s friends are indeed electric
682: Sony snapper shakes things up
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606: Gadgets, gear and good things…
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546: Long lens
542: The Weird and the Wonderful from Japan's Gadget Gurus
540: Picture perfect
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538: High spirits
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534: Soup’s on
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532: Worth its wait?
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530: Rich itch
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528: Telly addicts
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526: Future perfect
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524: Digital delights
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522: Chips with everything
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520: Coming soon…
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518: Ides of March
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516: Coming up roses
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514: What you need
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512: A kind of hush
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509/10: Wrapping up 2003
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508: All kinds of everything
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506: Apple picking
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504: Cleaning up
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502: Show and tell
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500: Corn-y for you
J Mark Lytle separates the high-tech wheat from the low-grade chaff.
498: Bits and pieces
J Mark Lytle delivers the latest and greatest from Japan's high-tech wonderland.
497: Gadgets ‘r’ us
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494: Talkin' 'bout a revolution
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492: The right stuff
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490: Good to go
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488: Summer breeze
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486: Space odyssey
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484: Air time
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480: Keep your cool
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478: All blogged up
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476: Future Wave
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474: Small wonders
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472: Paws for thought
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468: Photo finish
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466: Keitai kool
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464: Mini mart
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460: Green Machines
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456: Strange days
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454: Match point
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450: Future space
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448: Virtual battlefield
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446: Fair game
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444: Clothes encounters
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442: Back lighting
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440: Get the picture
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438: ABU Robocon 2002
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436: Thin is in
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430: Lost in translation
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422: An Apple a day
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420: Geek speak
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418: Hot commodities
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416: Smart appliances
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410: PDA Personalities
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408: Design intervention
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404: Broadband Business
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396: Big game hunting
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394: Wire tap
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392: You've got mail
390: School's in session
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388: Diaries go hi-tech
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386: Why Upgrade?
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384: Gadgets to go
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382: Hot software
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380: Peripheral vision
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376: Kill spam
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372: In for repair
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370: Game for a laugh
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368: Knowledge is power
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366: Generation next
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364: MacWorld
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362: Online translation
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360: DIY Star Wars
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358: Network gaming
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357: Bad it online
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355: Robotic revelations
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352/3: Get the point
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350: Talk is cheap
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348: Tsukumo
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346: Digital Stadium
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344: Tokyo Game Show
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342: WonderBorg
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340: Fun and games
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337: Dream on
Tokyo Dream Technology Fair 2000

Paws for thought

Cyber-pets are coming out one after another. Cathy Frances tracks down the home-entertainment companions that may give you a run for your money.

Robo-pets are fun for a short while, but people quickly become bored with them. To overcome this, scientists are trying to develop robots that perform useful functions, in addition to being entertainers. Cyber pets are taking the quantum leap from simple four-legged Rover substitutes to…well anything you really want them to be, whether it’s a furry couch potato that purrs when you stroke it to an acrobatic, phone-answering bridge-partner who performs the Macarena while serving cocktails.

 

Top dog
Top of the current robo-pack is undoubtedly AIBO. The first shipment of 3,000 units sold out within 20 minutes when it was released in Japan in 1999—no mean feat for a ¥250,000 toy. Sony claims to have sold 100,000 units within the first two years of release. “Physically, every AIBO is the same,” says Nick Twyman, director of Sony Entertainment Robots Europe. “But AIBO has headroom for growth, so every one ends up different.”

A range of software enables owners to develop individual personality programs that can be slotted into the dog, using an 8 or 16Mb memory stick to customize the robot’s basic behavior and instincts into a unique pet with a personality. Software starts at ¥8,000 or free “AIBO Treats” can be downloaded from Sony’s website.

“People have a tendency to attach a personality to inanimate things, like a car or teddy bear, where none really exists,” says Tetsuya Ogata, RIKEN research scientist and visiting assistant professor at Waseda University’s Humanoid Robotics Institute. “This tendency is enhanced when the object pretends to have a consciousness. The scientific term for this is ‘entrust behavior.’ For example, if AIBO follows his ball, it can be interpreted as ‘AIBO loves his ball,’ when in reality it is programmed to stay within a certain distance of the ball.”

The challenge for scientists, Ogata adds, is to create a robot that really genuinely thinks for itself and can adapt to a changing environment, learn and eliminate irrelevant or conflicting information. There are currently seven models of AIBO. “Retailing at ¥69,000, the cute, wide-eyed ERS-31L is popular with grandparents,” says Sayoka Tanaka from Bik-P-kan store in Ikebukuro. “Young people—particularly boys in their 20s, prefer the android-like ERS-220A (¥180,000) series.”

 

Other hound-droids
Costing about ¥24,000, Tiger Electronic’s i-Cybie is a viable alternative for someone who just wants to be entertained by a robotic dog doing handstands, pivoting and begging. Praising i-Cybie will cause it to break into a trick routine.

American eT-Dog (¥2,400) is really a cell phone accessory that will bark, move and flash its eyes delightedly when you receive an incoming call. It will give the same performance if you play with the eT-Bone accessory. In sensor mode it will warn you when someone passes by.

Megabyte 2.0 performs similar cyber-watch-dog functions using motion detectors to sense intruders. Manufacturer Wow-Wee International Limited has also incorporated spinning satellite ears, woof noises and a useful storage space in the back, so the dog can carry things around while on patrol.

 

Purr-fect pet
Most robo-pets on the market aim to be interesting toys in the shape of an animal, rather than a real pet substitute, with the exception of Ne-Co-Ro, modeled by Omron on the “typical American feline.” Ne-Co-Ro, (an acronym derived from the Japanese words for cat, communication and robot) is about the same size and weight as a normal cat and covered with acrylic fur. It incorporates 15 sensors that enable it to respond to tactile, visual and audio stimulation. Like a real cat, it reacts to tone and volume, rather than specific commands, with an astounding 48-meow vocabulary to express its mood. Omron claims the 5,000 limited edition units (only available in Japan) have sold out.

 

On the drawing board
CAM-Brain Project’s Robokoneko will ultimately incorporate an artificial brain with a billion artificial neurons, but no fur. “Future home robots will be multi-functional,” according to Ogata. So don’t be surprised if the new AIBO is crossed with Toshiba’s Robot Cleaner to produce an acrobatic vacuum cleaner.

Sanyo is currently developing a mole-like home-security robot, which will connect to the Internet for home security. NEC’s robot also connects to the Net to answer questions and bring you the latest news or weather reports, although voice recognition is still a bit of a problem, Ogata admits. “AIBO and friends were commercial spin-offs of research by Sony and Honda to develop bi-ped humanoid robots. As the new technology is developed for ASIMO and SDR-4X, this will be incorporated into the pet robot market,” Ogata says.

To see a full selection of robot pets, including Godzilla, Boss Robot Frog and Aquaroid BT 03 (a robotic turtle) and build your own robot kits, see www.robotoys.com.

Photos courtesy of Sony

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