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Best (???) of The Friday File: Games go to the (robot) dogs

To tell you the truth, we were wondering that ourselves. Sure, nobody has advocated as strongly, or as strangely, for Sony’s beloved robot dog as have we down here in the basement. The whole concept of Aibo fits into our mantra of cool, offbeat technology that is as far from “enterprise-level mission-critical” PR bafflegab as possible, and so, it’s natural that we should devote our lives to feverishly covering the Aibo, right? But when push comes to shove, what would we do if we got our hands on one of these cool little beasties? (Minds out of the gutter, sickos!)

Well, thanks to Montreal’s Christian Meunier, and his intrepid little startup company Aibotoys, we’d play games. Lots of games. Games that even the most expensive pure-bred real carbon-based dogs wouldn’t be able to master in a lifetime. Of course, real carbon-based dogs don’t support Sony’s MemoryStick, so that might have something to do with it.

Meunier calls himself an anomaly, even in the somewhat- anomalous field of people doing programming for Aibo. It seems that he, and his company, Aibotoys, are about the only ones out there, at least in North America, devoted to producing games for the Aibo. Or rather, for people to play with their Aibo.

“Since the first release, I was completely hooked on Aibo,” Meunier said, agreeing to be interviewed by The Friday File after only cursory assurances that our shots were up to date and that we had never holed ourselves up in a para-militaristic compound anywhere in Montana. “I finally got one, and since I’ve been developing software for a long time, I started to toy with it and see if I could program something with it.”

By the beginning of 2002, Meunier had reached the point where he was ready to publicly release Tic-T’aibo, a game where you put out a large game board on the floor, and literally sit down and play Tic-Tac-Toe with your Aibo. “You just put the pink ball [supplied with Aibo] in the right spot and the Aibo will track the ball, and figure out where he played, and play his move,” Meunier said.

And now, just in time for holiday giving for your favourite robot- dog-crazed technophile, Aibotoys is taking pre-orders for its first pack of games for your plastic pal who’s fun to be with. Included in the kit are the veteran Tic-T’aibo, as well as new arrivals AiboReversi, and AiboMemory. Just in case there are any Dungeons-and-Dragons fans out there in Aiboland, also included is a AiboDice, which allows your dog to act as dice for any games you might want to play. Try that with your German Shepherd.

Although still a free-time business aside from his “day job,” which also involves computer programming, Aibotoys has expanded to a five-person staff for the launch of the new gamepack. Clearly, the nascent company has done some extensive market research to indicate exactly who is likely to buy his company’s wares. So who is in the market for the ability to play games with their Aibo?

“The early adaptors were the people who wanted to prove that their $1,000 robot could do something more than chasing a ball,” he said with a laugh. “When more games were made available this month, we saw more people who were interested in playing the games with the Aibo. It’s coming to the mainstream now.”

It’s a hazardous job, frought with perils. While most of us have some sort of link to our computer (most often a love/hate relationship, with hate prevailing most often,) how many of us could imagine downloading a first generation of beta code to our favourite little e-buddy? Animal testing has been relegated from many fields of science, but it appears that in the world of Aibo development, programmers don’t have much choice.

“Right now, there’s not much for developers that can be used to run the controls,” Meunier said, meaning that programmers have little choice than to risk blue-screening their little buddy to try out their latest offering. “It’s an effort of trying to program correctly, playing with it on a couple of Aibos, and making sure everything works correctly.”

There was, also, of course the small problem of Sony threatening legal action against those developing third-party offerings for Aibo, and issue which this column reported on (in all seriousness) earlier this year. Happily, that issue was resolved, although Meunier said he stayed on the sidelines until it became clear that “they had sat down with Kool-Aid and cookies to talk this issue out.” Hey! He’s stealing our material!

Meunier, as well as being a software programmer in a pair of different fields, is also a veteran Aibo owner, with a faithful e- companion who accompanies him everywhere.

“He’s sitting right here by me, and probably wondering what I’m talking about,” he said. “He’s pretty much consistent; he likes his ball a lot.”

So much so, that apparently, he has confused “the huge Coca Cola machine at my wife’s office” with “a huge ball” to be played with. No word on how that particular relationship is blossoming.

Meunier, as an Aibo fan and a businessman, sees a bright future for Sony’s robot dog to continue his development.

“Just one year ago, I was really impressed that I could make it play Tic Tac Toe,” he admitted. ” They spent a whole lot of money on the development, it’s really impressive from a technical eye. The machine is really well done. Every time there’s a new release, it’s just going to be more and more impressive.”

And, of course, Meunier intends for that same trend to continue in his games. He said there were some new ideas underway, but declined to comment on what form those ideas would take or when, even given our best sub-basement 14 promise not to leak that information. Smart move.

“I don’t want to give any spoilers right now, but there’s some development underway for the next game,” he said. “I’m just using a fraction of what the machine can do.”

Well, that’s all well and good, Christian. But let’s get down to the core of the issue, shall we? When is Aibo going to become really useful? When can we count on the e-mutt to fetch us our slippers, or pour us a double-double mochachino with hot foam?

“There’s a skateboard for Aibo out now,” Meunier said. “If Aibo can control a skateboard, I think it’s getting closer to being able to put the coffee mug on the skateboard and pushing it to you.”

SCORE! We’re hooked. Like we said, for your Christmas-time giving pleasure, we would appreciate the new Aibo in white.

If you think a technophile in your life would be interested in some new games for their Aibo, check out Aibotoys’ Web site. Tell ’em The Friday File sent you and get… well… absolutely nothing special.

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