From Paleontology, to Technology, to Pet ? a Labor of Love

Meet Pleo, an extremely popular exhibit at CES. Inspired by one of the most common sauropod dinosaurs of the Late Jurassic period in the western United States, Pleo was designed dimensionally against a fossil of the camarasaurus. Derek Dotson, an electronics engineer and COO at Innvo Labs, spoke with BSN* of his pride and joy, Pleo.

Derek Dotson demos Pleo
Derek Dotson demos Pleo

Remember the lyrics of an old song "It walks, it talks, it crawls on its belly like a reptile." Dinosaurs are reptiles, and Pleo can walk, talk, and respond to human touch ? all thanks to sensors hidden all over its body, under its polymer skin. He has a color cam in his nose for navigation. Dotson tells us "Pleo walks when he is bored, or not being held and petted."

Inside are some 14 motors, 108 gears, 9 PC boards, and 5 processors. They use 32-bit processors for the main body and head that runs the camera. Motor control processors are 8 bit. Each motor gets feedback, they are positional. If a joint is held, Pleo doesn?t fight it, that?s part of the programming. If a child holds a leg for example, when Pleo tries to move, he senses the restriction, and movement of that limb stops. Body parts are ratcheted, clutched. Pleo can absorb the impact of falling or being forced into position by a child. The toy doesn?t break under normal child use, and Dotson claims they have never broken a gear in 100,000 units.

Pleo interacts with his human companions. He moves organically, expresses emotion, explores autonomously, responding to his environment. He has sensors under the chin, at the head, shoulders, butt, and on each leg. The sensor in Pleo?s mouth will clutch a training leaf, or gently play tug of war with an inserted finger. His nose has an infrared sensor for edge detection and communication with another Pleo. Feet sensors tell Pleo when his feet are down, or when he has been picked up. Orientation even tells him when he is upside down. He responds to the environment and especially to humans. Using stereo hearing, Pleo knows where sound is coming from, so he can react to the human voice.

BSN* reporter falls in love with Pleo

Dotson calls Pleo a robotic companion pet. Families with children who have allergies find them a great substitute for a live dog or cat. Apartment dwellers don?t need a cleaning deposit or special permission to keep Pleo. Dotson, speaks lovingly of this charming pet. "He comes out of the box as a hatchling, just out of the egg. He is completely dependent on you. He needs to be held, cuddled, to keep him warm. At first he just sleeps, but the more he is nurtured, he will learn to speak, and move. He learns how to use his legs, and starts to explore his environment similar to how a child develops. Pleo?s personality is dictated by how you treat him." Dotson has a herd of 20 of them at home, each with its own personality. He says "Pleos remember kindness, as well as mistreatment, but they are extremely forgiving." You might say they have a tough skin.

Pleo?s skin, or covering, is tough ? something they worked on for four years. Jetta Corporation is the manufacturer of the special formula. The skin was designed for longevity, fit, and flexibility. The pattern was taken from a fossilized piece of skin, but no one knows if a camarasaurus was really green, nor if its eyes were brilliant blue like Pleo?s. Jerry Finney, a dinosaur expert, sculpted Pleo working from the fossilized bones.

Camarasaurus_lentus embedded in original sandstone. 

In its Dinosaur Hall, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History has complete skeletons of two other sauropods besides the camarasaurus: an apatosaurus and a diplodocus. Sauropods were large, quadruped, dinosaurs with bulky bodies, long necks and tails, and tiny heads with small brains. Dotson says: "Pleo was accurate science until ‘cute’ took over. The real thing had a head the size of walnut. The toy is bigger than nature would allow." The camarasaurus couldn?t raise its head if it were the size of the toy?s. At slightly less than 9 pounds, Pleo overall is much smaller than the 59 foot creature that inspired him.

Camarasaurus, discovered in Utah in 1909 by Earl Douglass, is known as a chambered lizard, due to hollowed out chambers in its vertebrae. It was a plant eater, and a subset of Saurischians, the order of lizard-hipped dinosaurs that were probably the ancestors of birds.

Pleo runs off an NiMH rechargeable battery, has a USB port for updating firmware over the internet, and uses a less-than-1GB SD card for downloading personalities off the Innvo website.

What is very interesting is that Pleo is not a product coming from an unproven company. You might find interesting that Pleo and an earlier ultra-successful robotic-type pet, Furby, share a designer, Caleb Chung. Caleb previously worked with Tiger Electronics, now part of Hasbro.

Another company with a strong relationship with Hasbro, Takara out of Japan, was also involved in the creation of Pleo. Chung?s own company, Ugobe, recently had financial difficulties, resulting in Innvo Labs taking Pleo under their wing. Innvo is building their company around Pleo and other LifeForms. They are out to revolutionize robotics and transform inanimate objects into lifelike creatures.

Furbies, in their first three years, sold over 40 million units, and their speaking ability encompassed 24 languages. We don?t know if Pleo, selling at $349 MSR, will match that of Furby, originally priced at only $35 in 1998, nor if the dinosaur?s utterances will be translated into human speech, but Pleo sure wins your heart.