Aibo Dogs Boogie, Sony Doesn't Bark

Robotics: Sony backs off a hacker and robotics hobbyist known only as Aibopet

Illustration by Stephen Savage

Illustration by Stephen Savage

"Vogue!" bleats Madonna's voice, and three robotic dogs stare straight ahead, slowly lifting their front paws above their heads to the '90s hit. Perfectly in sync, they flip their paws inward and, yes, strike a pose. The dogs (which can be seen at www.aibopet.com) are Sony Aibos, and they learned to vogue courtesy of a passionate hacker and robotics hobbyist known only as Aibopet.

He declines to give his real name, but Aibopet became something of a celebrity last year when the electronics giant tried to shut down parts of his Web site where users can download free software that Sony does not offer. He received two threatening letters from Sony, accusing him of "copyright and trademark infringement."

After publicity and a flood of outraged letters from Aibo owners, Sony backed off, and Aibopet hacks on.

Now the company appears to be adopting some of Aibopet's ideas. Sony has released Master Studio 1.1,
a $449 kit that lets users reprogram their Aibos to respond to voices-a feature long available from Aibo-pet. And Sony boasts that its new ERS-31L Aibo (an adorable bulldog that, at $599, is the cheapest Aibo yet) can "entertain you with 200 new dance moves."

Aibopet is delighted. "The new Master Studio is great, and I'm promoting it heavily," he says. "If Sony takes ideas from me, I can't really complain. The price is too bloody high, but Sony needs to make money on this, and I respect that."

A Sony spokesman contends that the company's new offerings are "completely different" from those pioneered by Aibopet. Asked to explain the difference, he replied: "I don't know . . . But it's my understanding that it's different."

-Harald Franzen