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Ontario Technoblog

Ontario Emperor technology blog.

This blog has been superseded by the mrontemp blog
Location: Ontario, California, United States

Sometime audio artist. Email comments on this blog to the gmail account mrontemp.

Monday, July 10, 2006

It's a small world after all - and it talks back (or shrieks back)

When you fly on planes, you end up reading Skymall and finding things like this:

"Alive" Chimpanzee.

Now this is a real robot. So real, it's unreal! The amazing "Alive" Chimpanzee is a life-size, lifelike product of the latest Hollywood "F/X" animatronics - state-of-the-art robotic technology dedicated to making machines that look, sound and act like real animals. This extraordinary creature is an extremely responsive, highly intelligent "primate" robot with keen artificial intelligence.

This is the entire description that appeared in the magazine. This is the entire description that appeared on the website. However, it doesn't really answer the question - what does the chimp DO? I had to go to the Sharper Image website to find out.

OK, so it doesn't quote Shakespeare. Here's what it actually does:

"Alive" Chimpanzee can see, hear and feel in ways that allow him to interact intelligently with you, your family, your guests...and with baffled strangers.

Soulful eyes track movements using infrared "radar" vision; his ears have stereoscopic sound sensors; his skin reacts to contact with touch sensors all around.

Four distinctive emotional moods include "Curious," "Happy," "Fearful" and "Feisty."

This thing has been around for a while, and Ryan Jett took a few moments to think about it:

Is it cool? Yeah, it’s pretty cool. Until you think about it with your mind. I can understand why someone would find a robotic chimp pretty damn rad; imagine coming home from a hard day at work to be welcomed by a big, friendly Robo-Chimp hug and beer that he’s been kind enough to fetch you from the fridge. Pretty sweet. But that’s not what we have here. What we have is a robotic chimp head. Got that? A fully articulated, decapitated simian capable of autonomous movement and vocalization. For all intents and purposes, you are purchasing a stationary object whose primary function is to scream at you like a banshee from atop your bookcase. It’s not as if it speaks, you see; in an effort at total realism, the makers have given this shrieking bust the vocal abilities of a real chimp.

Well, someone (who may or may not have heard of Kevin & Bean's theory about primates taking over the world) overreacted:

For months I've tried to convince you...sheep that we are under attack. I spoke of a well organized movement wherein monkeys devise a plan and slowly move toward world domination....

As if my fears (or intense psychotic paranoia, as you like to call it) weren't enough, what do I find in the local SkyMall catalogue?...

Even more disturbing, I asked my flight attendant, a smallish Latino named Cilantro, if such a thing could be carried on an aircraft. To my horror, he said that, if it could fit into a carry-on bag, and fit in an overhead bin, he didn't see why not.

It was around that time that I started hyperventilating....

This isn't the first interactive toy, obviously. Even in 2002, there were tons of them:

Toys have talked for years. The first talking doll dates to the 19th century. By 1960, Chatty Cathy had ushered in the modern era of talking toys with a vocabulary of 11 phrases, including "Will you play with me?" A generation ago, Teddy Ruxpin's incredibly lifelike chatter delighted toddlers, even if it freaked out adults like me. And who could forget the flap over Teen Talk Barbie's affront to girl power a decade ago when she exclaimed "Math is hard!"

Consider yourself warned: This holiday season, we're going to see a wave of toys that listen, too. Incorporating tiny microchips, these toys can actually understand certain key phrases, then intelligently respond. It presages, for better or worse, a major breakthrough in how toys interact with kids, and thus how kids respond to their toys.

Aloha Stitch, an interactive version of the animated creature from this summer's Disney's "Lilo & Stitch," has sold well since its August release. And scads of similar toys are on the way. My favorites: a remote-controlled R2-D2 and a goofy line of cosmic pet rocks called P.O.D.Z.

The author, Jim Louderback, then looks at the ramifications of this:

Given the ability of these toys to hold conversations, where is a child's relationship with his or her toy headed? Until now it's been largely one-sided -- children dictate the course of the relationship -- and the assumption has been that toys love unconditionally.

But that's no longer the case, thanks to the technology embedded in their little smiling heads. Like its cinematic counterpart, Stitch the toy isn't always so agreeable. Ask him if he's hungry and he might respond, "Not anymore. I ate your dinner ... buurrrp!"


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