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Twelve years after Aibo disappeared from store shelves, Sony has released a new version of its iconic robotic dog—a move the company hopes will mark its comeback as a tech powerhouse.

Aibo’s rebirth was spearheaded by President and CEO Kazuo Hirai, who saw it as part of Sony’s drive “to continue to be a company that inspires curiosity in people.”

It is also part of his “One Sony” strategy of combining technological strengths across the company’s different sections to create business capable of generating steady revenue. He has been promoting this strategy since becoming president in 2012.

PET ADVANCES
The failure of the Aibo is not an option for Hirai. If it dies off like its predecessor did soon after its 1999 debut, it will deal a blow to Sony’s brand image. Success, on the other hand, is seen as a way to establish an iconic new product to solidify the company’s fan base.

“We crammed a lot of our unique technologies and devices into the new Aibo,” said Sony Director Izumi Kawanishi, who headed the Aibo development team. “We’re going to offer a new experience by fusing hardware and cloud technology.”

Hirai began working on the project in the summer of 2016, bringing together engineers from different divisions. Meeting this month’s rollout deadline meant putting in serious overtime at the company’s headquarters in Tokyo. The biggest challenge for the engineers was giving the dog natural movements and the ability to learn new tricks, which were seen as key to creating a bond between Aibo and its owners. One of the initial prototypes proved a major letdown—far too big and nothing like the cute puppy they had envisioned.

A camera mounted in its nose captures human faces, while another on its back gives it a view of the surrounding room. This allows Aibo to approach people it knows and avoid bumping into objects.

Sony decided that 2018, the Year of the Dog, was the right time for Aibo’s comeback. The company held a “birthday ceremony” at its Tokyo headquarters on January 11 at 11:01 a.m. The sound of the date and time—one, one, one—is sim­ilar to the Japanese sound for a dog barking: wan, wan, wan.

The new Aibo has already proven a hit. Since November, Sony has taken three rounds of pre-orders, with each round selling out within an hour.

The original Aibo, introduced in 1999.

CUDDLIER AND CUTER
The current version is much more intelligent than the original, the company says. It comes with a price tag of ¥198,000 ($1,778). Sony aims to sell it overseas as well.

The goal was to make the new Aibo cuddlier than its predecessor, rounding its edges and enhancing its cuteness by giving it gestures, such as cocking its head and wiggling its rump. This required installing a large number of actuators—components that control movement—which presented a challenge, because the team did not want any visible screws on the dog’s body.

Engineers Hidenori Ishibashi and Naoyuki Izu were brought in from the digital camera division to design a new actuator capable of giving Aibo doglike movements.

The artificial intelligence (AI) system was designed to mimic a dog’s natural learning process. Aibo does not immediately put out a paw when commanded to “shake” or “high five.” It develops these behaviors gradually, and it is friendlier to people who give it a lot of attention, just like a real dog.

During the product’s development, Hirai visited the team every month for progress reports. Kawanishi, Sony’s top engineer, thought the team could apply precision technology developed for rotating parts, such as those used in cassette tape decks, to Aibo. Luckily, this older technology was still being refined by engineers working on digital cameras.

Kawanishi, who joined the company in 1986, is known for his expertise in both hardware and software. After being assigned to a game subsidiary in 1995, he led development projects for the PlayStation 3 console and PlayStation Portable. He has also been tasked with the heavy challenges of revitalizing Sony’s slumping smartphone business.

“I get the tough jobs,” he said with a wry smile.

MORE CLEVER
Aibo owes much of its brain to Takuma Morita, who previously worked on cameras, and to Tomohiro Taira, an expert in cloud computing who works for a Sony communications subsidiary.

“The important thing was to make sure it will both please and disappoint its owner to the right degree,” Morita said, since a bit of exasperation would make it more like owning a real dog and thus inspire greater affection.

The new Aibo is cleverer than its predecessor, thanks to a wireless cloud-based AI system that collects and analyzes data from other Aibo robots. This gives it a bigger repertoire of tricks and allows it to automatically download software that produces unexpected new behaviors.

The team worked hard on Aibo’s final touches. After the announcement of the product launch in November, engineers took proto­types home to work on them.

In the final phase, Yusuke Kawabe joined the team from subsidiary Sony Mobile Communications. He repeatedly went to the zoo to study the movements of animals, even crawling around on all fours to get a feel for how they walk. This helped him fine-tune Aibo, giving it an endearing waddle and allowing it to mimic a real puppy when it lies down, “so we could make it really cute,” he said.

Atsushi Obara, part of a research and development group made up of people from different divisions, came up with a tool to shorten the time to produce software to enable subtle, natural movements.

Despite all the innovations, Kawanishi said Aibo’s release is “only the beginning.” Sony hopes to sell related products and services such as software, like it does with its PlayStation game consoles. Aibo’s camera, for example, could be used to monitor elderly family members, according to the company.

With many challenges to address to ensure that Aibo becomes an enduring global hit rather than a short-lived fad, Kawanishi and his team undoubtedly have many busy days still ahead of them.

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We crammed a lot of our unique technologies and devices into the new Aibo.