Watch a Slate V video comparing all the robo-pets in action.
I'm 32 years old, I'm not married, and my dogological clock is ticking. For almost a decade now, I've been an armchair pet owner, studying breed lists and taking Web quizzes on what kind of puppy to adopt. Then, during a recent bout of anxiety over my impending menopaws, I volunteered to dog-sit for a friend.
It turns out that a real, live dog is nearly as demanding as a human baby—except a dog never learns to pour its own bowl of cereal. According to my dog-sitting instructions, I was to provide the animal with two meals every day plus three promenades around the block. (Happily, I was spared the unenviable task of brushing her teeth.) Forget drinks after work. Forget that film screening. Forget dinners out. Heck, forget even going into the office.
And so I became aware of my membership in a sad demographic that includes shiftless magazine editors, small children, and senior citizens. We're the sorry lot that adores animals but is too lazy, uncoordinated, or infirm to take care of them.
Fortunately, the modern world has produced something just for us—the robot pet. In theory, an animal constructed of fake fur, plastic limbs, and servos is the perfect substitute for a demanding, flesh-and-blood companion. But how engaging are these mechanical beasts? I took a stroll down Animoid Row to find out.
In the course of my research, I surveyed a wide spectrum of robot friends—deluxe, automated dinosaurs, joke-telling dogs, and even an original, late-1990s model Furby. To see how they performed in the wild, I conducted and videotaped a series of focus groups with those I deemed most likely to appreciate them: namely, a pair of small children, a kindly grandmother, a live dog, and a guy who was really, really stoned. (No video footage was compiled during the stoner session, so as to avoid harshing effects.)
As much as I enjoyed the exercise, it soon became clear that at every price point, a robot pet can be described by its signature combination of essential robot qualities: It's annoying, disturbing, offensive, pathetic, or scary—or some mixture thereof. In the end, though, one fake animal whirred and purred his way into my heart.
I present my findings below, in order of price, not value:
Original Furby, Tiger Electronics
A decade after it first appeared on the market, the original Furby remains the single-most annoying robot you can find. Thankfully, its antique chassis doesn't allow for autonomous movement—and thus it can be stowed permanently in the corner, facing the wall, with a towel draped over its head. Even so, any sudden movements, sounds, or flashing lights in the vicinity of the Furby may set off a cacophony of ejaculations in a grating and infantile pseudo-language called "furbish." To my surprise, though, the Furby performed admirably in the small-children test. (For a more detailed look at how kids interact—or don't interact—with the Furby, see this implanted-camera study conducted by multimedia artist Natalie Jerimejenko in 2000.)
Recommended for children so young that their faculty of annoyance is not fully developed ($15.50 on eBay; ages 6 and up).
Alive White Tiger Cub, WowWee
The Alive cub toys—available in white tiger, lion, panda, and polar bear models—are to be commended for their cheapness and elegance. The White Tiger is almost exactly what I'm looking for: a cuddly house cat that blinks and meows when you stroke its head but won't get hungry or pee on the sofa. If it weren't for the hum and whir of the animatronic motors, you might even forget, for a moment, that it's not really alive. (On that point, the cub is not alone: I'm now convinced that the invention of a silent motor would be the most dramatic breakthrough in the history of robotics; next to that, artificial intelligence is a trifle.) Another strike against: The cub can move only its mouth and eyes, so it spends most of its time awkwardly keeled over like a stuffed animal with not enough stuffing.
Recommended for anyone, especially the simple-minded or bedridden ($50; ages 3 and up).
Elmo Live, Fisher Price
Annoying / Pathetic / Scary
This throwback to the Ruxpin family of talking teddy bears isn't so much interactive as it is bossy—press a button on his toe, and Elmo Live launches into an interminable game of "Elmo Says." (Warning: No matter how diligently you follow his instructions, Elmo concludes that you've made a mistake and emits a loud buzzing sound to underline the point.) When he's not ordering people around, Elmo tells lame jokes that even my 18-month-old nieces would find condescending, or he performs some form of stuffed-animal calisthenics to an obnoxious soundtrack. He has a tendency, during this and other routines, to work himself into such a lather that he falls over, whereupon the machine defaults to plaintive (and often unheeded) calls for rescue. Focus groups were almost uniformly unimpressed, though Elmo did develop a touching love-hate relationship with the live dog. I'm also prepared to conclude that of every robot tested, Elmo Live is most likely to fall victim to a voodoo spell, brandish a knife, and go on a killing spree.
Recommended for hungry dogs ($60; ages 18 months and up).
Femisapien Humanoid Robot, WowWee
Disturbing / Offensive
After four focus groups and hours of careful study, I still can't make heads or tails of the Femisapien. According to the manufacturer, she's "an independent robot girl!" Which is, I suppose, a quick way of saying that she's a weirdly flirtatious, 15-inch-high, animated figurine with an assertive plastic bosom and a shapely behind. By pointing her hands in different directions, you can trigger a set of increasingly unsettling behavioral programs. In the "fashion pose" function, she does what looks like voguing. Then there's the function where she blows kisses at you. Or the one where she slow-dances with you. Or the one where she converses with you in a series of girlish moans and giggles. (I wouldn't have been surprised to discover an Easter egg function where she gives you a back rub.) So who's the target audience here? For this kind of money, you could get a harem of inflatable dolls.
Recommended for sex-starved male robots ($100; ages 8 and up.).
Wrex the Dawg, WowWee
Annoying / Pathetic / Offensive
Finally, a robot dog! Too bad this one plays like a salty version of Elmo Live, on wheels. The conceit here is that Wrex is a "junkyard dog" made from discarded electrical parts. That's why he's always blurting out vaguely insulting one-liners from his speakers ("I'd shake your paw, but I don't know where it's been") and why his set of programmed behaviors include "takes a wiz" and "breaks wind." Left to his own devices, he'll drive around the room, muttering at obstacles as he avoids them and occasionally pausing to deliver one of his trademark bits—a melodramatic death scene, for example, followed by a cheeky demand for an Oscar. Every once in a while, he'll suffer a "breakdown" by design and beg you to reset him.
Recommended for not terribly precocious 8-year-olds ($120, ages 8 and up.)
FurReal Friends Biscuit My Lovin' Pup, Hasbro
Pathetic / Disturbing
Biscuit should be the robot pet for me. He's a soft, realistic, life-size dog that tilts his head and whimpers when you scratch under his ears. Put your hand near his nose, and he'll start sniffing and panting. Rub his back, and he'll wag his tail. He even responds to spoken commands like "Sit," "Lie down," and "Beg." (Serious question: Do live-dog owners really order their pets to beg? That's kind of messed up.) Tell him, "Give me your paw," and he'll raise up a furry foot in the most adorable way. He'd be even more adorable if this and every other movement didn't unfold in excruciating slow motion, accompanied by a loud whirring sound. Biscuit's front paws also have a tendency to get stuck under his body, which makes it look as though both his forelegs are broken. And his incessant and pathetic squeals are guaranteed to make you feel uncomfortable before too long. (To be fair, there are many more disturbing robot animals in the world. WowWee, for example, used to produce an animatronic head of a decapitated chimpanzee.)
Recommended for codependent dog lovers ($160; ages 5 and up).
Kota the Triceratops, Playskool
Annoying / Scary
Behold Kota, the Hummer of robot pets. Standing about 2 feet high and more than 3 feet long, this plush dinosaur is likely to be bigger than most of the kids who play with it. It's also likely to scare the bejesus out of them. Kota emits loud bellows as he swivels around a giant head and blinks his fist-sized eyes. He's even got built-in microphones, so he can respond to ambient sounds—which makes it easy to imagine a tit-for-tat of terrified screams and interactive dino-roars. That's too bad, because Kota is also programmed to respond to gentle strokes of his chin, head, and torso. Those brave enough to climb onto his back are rewarded with jungle adventure music and the sound of stomping triceratops feet. But Kota doesn't go anywhere.
Recommended for bratty rich kids who deserve what they get ($270; ages 3 and up).
I guess you get what you pay for. Pleo, an 8-inch-high, automated Camarasaurus, is a pleasure to have around. His movements, slow and steady, are significantly more lifelike than those of his competitors. Like many robot pets, Pleo is programmed to change "moods" over time—but unlike others, his behavioral states are instantly relatable: Sometimes he's curious, wandering across the room of his own accord; at other points he's playful, sleepy, or affectionate. Leave him be, and he's a soothing presence with his deliberate gestures and gentle sounds. Pick him up, and he's cuddly as the White Tiger Cub, despite his rubbery skin. In short, Pleo somehow manages to be neither annoying, disturbing, offensive, pathetic nor scary. I can think of no higher flattery for a robot pet.
Recommended for everyone. Pleo makes the world a better place ($349; ages 8 and up).