Why a new-generation aibo now? The potential of a pet-robot market that became visible with research

Have you heard of AIBO? It was a “pet-robot” dog released by Sony in 1999, but after many generations of AIBO were manufactured, production was stopped in 2006.
But it has been announced that this AIBO will be brought back as ‘aibo’ on 11 January 2018.*
As various pet-robots are being released, what position will the new aibo have in the pet-robot market?
* “Wan” — the Japanese word for how dogs bark closely resembles The English word “one”, and the 1/11 is wan-wan-wan no hi (dog day!) in Japan.

■ AIBO opened up the pet-robot market

As described above, AIBO is a pet-robot series sold by Sony since 1999. It was an authentic pet-robot released by a manufacturer of electrical appliances rather than by a toy manufacturer, and its novelty as well as its “cyber dog”-like appearance which looked like it might appear in SF, combined with its somehow awkward and adorable movements, made it a huge hit. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that AIBO became the trigger for the birth of the pet-robot market.
After the creation of AIBO, many inexpensive pet-robots were released, mostly by toy manufacturers; the pet-robot market expanded. Because the AIBO was more of a robot than a toy, its price was high as well, and because of competition with these later products among other reasons, the AIBO series was unfortunately discontinued in 2006.

aibo playing energetically in the ‘aibo room’, a space for contact opened in Shibuya

■Do most pet-robots only fulfil one need?

What has become of the pet-robot market created by AIBO?
Robots like AIBO that are “capable of pseudo-communication with humans” (communication robots) are becoming available at a variety of prices and with a variety of appearances. The market for communication robots is on an upward trend, and preliminary calculations have predicted that it will grow to 8.7 billion yen by 2020 (source: YANO Research Institute). The same research institute classifies communication robots into three types, namely “conversation models”, “non-conversation (action) models” and “conversation/action composite models”. ‘Pepper’, probably the most famous communication robot today, is a “conversation/action composite model”; it seems that this type of communication robot is particularly popular nowadays.
On the other hand, pet-robots belong to the category of “non-conversation (action) models”. The pet-robot popular in recent years include Tomy’s ‘Robi jr.’ (about 10,000 yen), ‘Woonyan’ (about 20,000 yen), and ‘Zoomer’ (about 40,000 yen); Sega Toys’ ‘Dream Cat Celeb’ (about 50,000 yen) and ‘Heart Energy Poochi’ (about 70,000 yen); and Daiwa House Industry’s ‘Paro’ (450,000 yen) (although Paro is a product intended for therapeutic purposes at nursing homes and other facilities, so it is slightly different from a pet-robot for family use). There are definitely many products people will have heard of, but I think there are few that are talked about as much as the AIBO. Why is that?
The family pet-robots I listed above are mostly products sold by major toy manufacturers, and cost from 10,000 to 50,000 yen, in the price range of toys. Their functions are mostly simple ones, like recognizing your voice and actions and making sounds or moving in response. In the end, pet-robots fulfil one need: they are replacements for pets.

■aibo ventures into needs apart from “a substitute pet”

So what about the new-generation ‘aibo’? Of course, it fulfils the need for a substitute pet, but thanks to the newest technology, it is also capable of movements more similar to those of a real dog. But if that were the only difference, wouldn’t it slowly disappear in the existing pet-robot market, just like the original AIBO? In reality, aibo does indeed fulfil different needs from the original AIBO, as well as other pet-robots.
As described above, existing pet-robots have been created with an eye towards value as a substitute pet. The original AIBO was equipped with many functions corresponding to its price of about 250,000 yen, but even so, it didn’t go beyond the level of an “expensive, multifunctional robotic pet”.
On the other hand, the new aibo is in the same price range as its predecessor at over 200,000 yen; however, it is equipped with the newest technology such as AI speakers, as well as the function to “grow” with the owner through cloud AI. Apart from bringing the aibo closer to a real animal, this function also lets us feel the development of robotics technology.
In fact, when one looks at what people have been saying on social media who are thinking about purchasing one or who made it through the hard-fought battle to reserve one, not all of them are expressing the usual need for a “substitute pet” or a “communication partner” that drives people to buy pet-robots; some are also anticipating the functionality of the product as a machine, and are saying things like “I’m waiting because I like new mechanical or robotic products”, or “I like Sony products”.
In other words, unlike the original AIBO or other pet-robots, hasn’t the new-generation aibo managed to use improvements in its movements as well as the adoption of cloud functionality to meet two needs: the demand for a “robotic pet” that can be a substitute for a real one, as well as the demand for a “pet-style robot” that is a high-performance machine?

■The key is its dual value as a “robotic pet” as well as a “pet-style robot”

When reservations for aibo opened on 11 November 2017 (11/1 is also Dogs’ Day!), all places were filled within about 30 minutes. This is another scene that shows us the anticipation people have for aibo. As the population ages and more and more people live alone, the demand for pet-robots will surely continue to exist together with the rising need for nursing care. But if we don’t go beyond just fulfilling the need for substitute pets, won’t it be difficult to release revolutionary products, as well as to expand the market? That’s the way it seems when we look at the 17 years since 1999, when AIBO was released. Against this background, I feel that a product like aibo with two values (and maybe more) will surely become the key to cut into the market from now on.

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(Article: Maki Kobayashi)

Fields Research Institute (FRI) conducts research in entertainment.
This article was written by a member of FRI, through the original coverage of his/her interests observed in their daily lives.

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