Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Synthetic Pets and the Power of Precedent

My colleague Scott Danish made an interesting point about the power of precedents in how people evaluate something new. We were talking about Pleo, a robotic toy introduced at DEMO 2006. Pleo is a cute dinosaur that’s supposed to be like a pet, capable of interacting with you and expressing emotions. It’s best seen rather than explained.

So why a dinosaur? Scott pointed out that, unlike a more familiar choice for a pet like a dog or cat, dinosaurs have more favorable precedents for consumer acceptance. First, we often think of dinosaurs as relatively slow-moving, stiff creatures. That’s a lot easier to represent robotically than, say, a dog, which Sony attempted with its now-canceled Aibo.

Perhaps more important, nobody has a real pet dinosaur. This lack of a tangible precedent gives people more room to project whatever they want onto little Pleo. And that matters because a key to any synthetic pet’s success so far—whether stuffed animal, tamagotchi, or robot—is the user’s imagination.

Bottom line: Put Pleo in an dog- or cat-like casing and its success as a toy gets more difficult. That’s the power of precedents.

[For a good write-up about Pleo in terms of Ugobe’s business strategy, see Rafe Needleman’s write-up.]


  1. Good thoughts about the power of precedent. Another reason that a dinosaur is a good idea is that kids love them. There's something about 5-7 year-olds that makes them forever fascinated by dinos.

  2. I agree with this. There is a certain mystique about dinosaurs. A pet dinosaur is a novelty that no one else has, while somebody can get a real dog or cat anywhere, and for less money.

  3. I think society has crossed the line of ever beliveing in robots in the SF sense of the word. From from the time of Frankenstein until the latest movie, I Robot, people were looking forward to a future of robots and computers with real identities that could be related to as conscious others. My question is why people were so quick to assume this would happen and are still dreamily hoping for dinasour pets or whatever. Although the 20th century proved false many times the claim, "it can never be done", I think the 21st century, dispite major breakthroughs, will be one in which the limits of human achievement will be more clearly defined.