The History of Digital Pets

Anyone born after 1993 will struggle to understand just how crazy the world went for digital pets. Trickling into the mainstream in the mid-1990s and catapulted into mass media with the release of the Tamagotchi, digital, artificial pets were a genuine sensation. In an age of smartphones and fibre optic broadband, the tech seems almost quaint now. But for a certain generation of people, digital pets were alive, loved, and a defining part of growing up.
Whether you’re nostalgic for an age of Tamagotchi devices or wondering just how the world could be so enthralled by what was – to all intents and purposes – a fancy calculator, this article will try to explain just how and why digital pets were so popular and why we’re not done with them just yet.

Digital Pets: A history

If we want to understand digital pets, it’s important to look at their history. To do so, we need to understand the nature of computing and technology in the early 1990s. Back then, we didn’t have super computers in our pockets and our lives didn’t live in the cloud. Back then, a few moving pixels on the screen was enough to keep us happy.
Just look at the video game consoles at the time. The Atari, for instance, seems positively prehistoric. The Super Nintendo Entertainment System, released around the time period in question, was certainly popular and its games have held up well today. But they could only be used in conjunction with a television. Just like the SNES’s little portable brother, the Game Boy, it was very apparent that it was a games machine, rather than an actual, digital pet.
Perhaps the game changer in this regard was the virtual pet franchise, Dogz. One look at that errant ‘Z’ at the end of the word tells you just how emblematic of the 1990s this games series was. Released in 1995 and designed for Windows computers, Dogz (part of a wider franchise named Petz) was a game which allowed the user to adopt, raise, and breed dogs. There wasn’t really a game involved, it was just a simulation of owning a pet – without all the mess and vets’ bills.
Dogz – along with its kennelmates Catz, Horsez, and Hamsterz – eventually proved so popular that the franchise ended up selling around 22 million copies. It demonstrated that there was a real market for digital pets, even if they were still tethered to the cumbersome Windows computers of the day.

The Game Changer

A year later, everything changed. We’ll examine the Tamagotchi in its own section, but there’s no way to discuss the history of digital pets without mentioning its name. Those little egg-shaped machines were everywhere in 1996. If you were within earshot of a child (or an adult), you’d be sure to hear those familiar, monotone chirping and buzzing sounds.
The most important quality of the Tamagotchi – and the one which really helped Bandai to crack the Western market wide open – was the portability of the thing. You didn’t have to boot up a PC, insert a CD, and wait for everything to load. The little critter was right there, on your keychain, with you the entire day. Just like a real pet, it demanded care and attention at all hours. Just like a real pet, you had to lavish it with this care and attention, lest harm befall the poor creature.
There was even a sense of progression. You had to raise the digital animal from the moment it popped out of its egg, right through infancy, into the difficult teenage years, and into adulthood. Along the way, you could train the pet, helping to teach it behaviours and tricks. You could even discipline the pet when it was badly behaved and clicking that button carried a heavy emotional weight, just as with a real pet.

If you didn’t take care of your pet – whether through negligence or forgetfulness – it died. Plenty of children’s formative experiences of death came when their little Tamagotchi finally bit the bullet, all because they hadn’t clicked the right button at the right time. You could compare the age of your pets, (makeshift high scores) which showed friends just how good of an owner you were for your digital pet. It was a sales sensation.

Of course, in the aftermath of the Tamagotchi, everyone wanted a piece of the pie. Later, we’ll check out some of the chief rivals to Bandai’s throne, but they all operated on the same essential model: little plastic device with a monochrome digital screen. That was the format and that was what sold.

And, oh boy, did it sell. At the peak of its popularity, 15 Tamagotchi devices were sold every minute in the United States. As of 2018, Bandai estimates that they’ve sold 82 million of the devices. And that’s just the official ones. There were plenty of imitators and pretenders. Everyone and their friend had a digital pet. But the genre wasn’t done evolving.
After the buzz around the Tamagotchi died down (which took a while), a new type of digital pet emerged. By this time, portable gaming had evolved massively since the mid-1990s. The Nintendo Game Boy had been replaced with an entirely new machine, the DS. The Dual Screen set-up from which the console takes its name was important. On top was a conventional screen – fully colourised, by now – and below was a touch screen, activated using a stylus (or a finger). It was this touch capability which resounded so well with the digital pet crowd.
In 2005, Nintendo released Nintendogs – another digital pet game series with an atrocious name. It was a pet simulator, offering much the same experience at the Tamagotchi. You could raise a dog, petting it, training it, caring for it, and – on occasion – disciplining it. Thanks to the touch screen and the microphone, owners could actually pet and talk to their dog, which would react accordingly. It responded to your actual voice commands: tell the puppy to sit and it just might (if you’d trained it properly).
The Nintendo DS was a hugely successful console and Nintendogs (which also spawned a multi-species franchise) was a hit. To this day, it remains the second-highest selling game on the handheld console and has expanded into plenty of other formats (including larger games consoles and merchandise.)

Since the Nintendogs, there have been countless imitations. Games for the DS and smartphones apps have harnessed the power of the touch screen to make it feel as though you’re really interacting with your digital pets. Even if we no longer have dedicated digital pet devices, our digital pets are still very much with us.

The biggest player in the game

Perhaps the most important era in the history of digital pets was the rise (and the slow decline) of the Tamagotchi. The device was so successful and spawned so many imitators that it came to define the way we think about digital pets.
The original Tamagotchi was the brainchild of Aki Maita, who created the pet simulation game for Bandai. The name was a portmanteau, a combination of the Japanese word for egg and the English word ‘watch’. Looking back on the hardware of the original device, it was barely more powerful than a wristwatch. Fitted with a 4-Bit CPU, it had a clock speed of 32.768 kHz and a tiny, tiny memory. The screen had two colours – blobs of black which were the massive pixels and the muddy green which was the bottlecap-sized LCD panel. Users controlled everything with three buttons on the front.

Sounds like nothing, right? So how did it take over the world? Maita’s genius was in creating the stickiness of the digital creatures, making them grab hold of the user’s emotions until they wouldn’t let go. Right from the moment you watch a strange creature hatch from an egg, you feel as though you’re instantly connected with the pet. You’re right there at its birth, instantly sharing a moment.
There was a back story, sure. An alien species had supposedly left the eggs on Earth and it was the job of the user to raise this creature into adulthood. But not many people knew or cared about the story. They just watched their weird new pet hatch from an egg and felt instantly compelled to care for it.

Care came in a few simple forms. With clicks of the three buttons, you could feed, pet, and discipline your pet, as well as clean up any mess it left behind. The more attention you paid to it, the better behaved it would become. If you failed to nurture the pet, you’d be cursed with constant beeping sounds. Just like a crying baby, the Tamagotchi would squeal and chirp, demanding your attention. It played on humans’ natural caregiving instincts, as well as their guilt.

Over the course of the next ten years, Bandai released plenty of different versions of the Tamagotchi. Bigger screens, different colours, freshly designed pets, and better hardware were all available. But every version tapped into that same natural human capacity for care. For kids, they were a fun game and parents liked that they could teach the child about responsibilities. It was a cheaper, cleaner alternative to a puppy. For plenty of adults, the devices were a fun distraction which brought a sudden (and often surprising) emotional attachment.

Generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, the Tamagotchi was the hot gift at Christmas and birthday parties throughout the mid to late 1990s. But it wasn’t just the official Tamagotchi that people wanted. Other companies saw Bandai’s success and decided that they wanted a slice of the digital pet pie. As we’ll see below, there was so much variety (and outright copying) that everyone could have the pet they wanted.

But credit has to be given to Aki Maita and her original Tamagotchi. The game mechanics and the tech were just right for the time and you’ll still see those same essential elements today in all digital pets. There’s a clear line in thought from the Tamagotchi to Nintendogs to the Sony AIBO to our modern smartphone apps and AI machines.

The Rivals

There were so many different digital pets released in the wake of Tamagotchi mania that it would take forever to list them all. But there were a few stand out examples. In the list below, we’ve selected a few of our favourites.


Released a year after the Tamagotchi and also made by Bandai, Digimon tried to tap into the market for boys. Digimon was an edgier brand, founded on battling the creatures rather than just caring for them. It was almost like a barebones RPG, where you could level up your creature’s power through the care and attention you paid it.
Most importantly of all, two of the Digimon devices could link together. If you and your friend both had Digimon, you could battle them against one another to find out whose was toughest. The idea was a massive success and, soon enough, Digimon was spun off into an entire brand of its own, with video games, t-shirts, and even a cartoon.

Tiger Giga Pets

If the Tamagotchi is the original digital pet device, then the Giga Pets were the original imitators. Created by one of Bandai’s biggest rivals, Tiger Electronics, the Giga Pet devices were released in 1997. Unlike the Bandai’s aliens, they often featured real life animals, such as dogs and cats. Later, they’d expand into stranger creatures, eventually including a Tyrannosaurs Rex and Sabrina the Teenage Witch’s cat, Salem. While the Giga Pets were very successful in the United States, they suffered from a branding issue which beset many of the entries in this list: everyone called them Tamagotchis anyway.

Playmates Nano Pets

Another device released in 1997, this time by Playmates. The Nano Pets line included a cat, a dog, and a human baby (which you’d care for exactly as you would the cat or the dog). While they sold well, the Playmates devices aren’t held in very high regard by the digital pets community.

Think Way Virtual Friends: Disney

Released in – you guessed it – 1997, this is one of what would become a familiar pattern in the world of digital pets: the big brand tie-in. Think Way were not one of the biggest manufacturers, nor the most accomplished, but they did have the marketing power of Disney behind them. Their branded digital pets included tie-ins with the Little Mermaid and Toy Story. In the former, you were tasked with caring for an aquarium filled with digital fish, rather than the eponymous Little Mermaid herself.

Nintendo Pikachu

Before Ninetndogs, Nintendo dipped their feet into the waters of the digital pet world with a tie-in of their own. Their device was a dedicated Pikachu machine, using the character from their hugely popular Pokémon games. The RPG series was a natural fit for the digital pet machines, as you would have to catch, raise, and care for your Pokémon. Coloured yellow, just like Pikachu himself, this device’s stand out innovation was an in-built pedometer, which allowed the user to rack up points simply by walking around. These points (dubbed ‘watts’ in the game) could then be used to purchase presents for your Pikachu. Given the roaring popularity of the little electric mouse, this device was a big hit.

Nintendo Pikachu Colour

Building on the success of their Pikachu device, Nintendo launched a follow up device a year later. The Pikachu Colour was similar to the original, wherein you earned ‘watts’ by walking around, but you could now use these watts to help your progress on the latest Pokémon games. Using the infra-red sensor on the Game Boy colour, you could exchange information between the digital pet and the video game, a real innovation at the time.

By the time the Pikachu Colour was released, the era of the digital pet was beginning to end. While devices still sold well – and do to this day – they no longer racked up the tens of millions of units they once did. The market was saturated and not even the Tamagotchi could continue to post massive sales figures.

The Future of Digital Pets

But digital pets are not gone. These days, we don’t need dedicated devices to power our virtual pets. A cursory search of any app store will reveal plenty of digital creatures, all looking for care and attention. Just like the Tamagotchi of old, you will need to feed them and pet them, training them as they grow old. As with the Nintendogs games, you can use the touchscreen and the microphone to interact with your pets. And just like the Pikachu games, the phone’s GPS will allow you to take them for walks. It’s not that we lost our digital pets, they just started living in our phones.

Furthermore, it’s still possible to buy dedicated Tamagotchi devices. These days, they’re not much more than nostalgic trips down memory lane, though they can make excellent presents if you find the right device for the right person.
According to futurist thinker Ross Dawson, we’re going to be seeing more and more robotic and digital pets in our lives. While AI and animatronics are improving by the day, allowing truly wonderful robots to be created, it’s the smaller, digital-only pets which perhaps will be more and more popular. As cities continue to grow, as living space becomes less available, and as our society becomes more atomised and isolated, the appeal of digital pets will surely grow.

From Tamagotchis to Talking Tom Cat: A history of virtual pets

Humans love pets, that much is obvious. It’s not just cats and dogs – pets come in all shapes and sizes. Horses, parrots, lizards, tigers. There are very few animals with whom we’re not happy to share our home.
But in the last few decades, humanity has discovered a new option. Thanks to our rapid technological advances, we’re now able to enjoy all the benefits of owning a pet with far fewer drawbacks. You see, we’ve found a way to take our love of pets into the virtual realm.
Virtual pets come in many forms and go by many names. You might have heard of them as digital pets, artificial pets, pet simulators, or pet-raising simulations – it doesn’t really matter, they’re just different ways of explaining the same essential idea. A virtual pet is one without a real, organic form. It’s one which lives on a computer, with which you can interact and nurture without ever really seeing in the flesh.

A virtual pet isn’t real, sure, but it doesn’t have to be. In this article, we’ll look at the history of virtual pets and find out why people love them so much.

Home computing

There’s always been an interest in non-organic pets. Anyone of a certain age will remember the clamour surrounding pet rocks many years ago. Since then, however, silicon chips have come on a long way and we should skip forward to the late 1980s to really understand the history of virtual pets.
The story properly starts with the advent of home computing. These days, we have PlayStations and Xboxes with enough computing power to put Neil Armstrong on the Moon several times over. But back then, home computing came either in the form of home consoles, like the Atari, or computers running DOS and Windows. The early consoles were too underpowered to handle a digital pet, but people slowly began to write programs for the home PC market.
By 1995, the first real software was ready for the consumer market. Written and released by a company called PF Magic, they titled their first virtual pet game Dogz. It was the first big hit, rocketing to the top of the charts and selling to young and old people alike. A year later, they followed up their success with Catz.
The two PF Magic games were notable for laying the foundations for how we think about virtual pets. They had rudimentary graphics for the time, showing your cat or dog and allowing you to raise the pet, training it and caring for it using on-screen functions. There was no real ‘game’ as such, just the pleasure of caring for a creature. People loved their Dogz and Catz but it would be a few months before the real game-changer was released.

The Tamagotchi

For people who weren’t around in the mid-1990s, it’s hard to comprehend just how much of a cultural phenomenon the Tamagotchi became. The little digital pets were everywhere, owned by everyone. The rise of the digital pet was, essentially the rise of the Tamagotchi.
The devices were devised by Bandai in 1995, released first in Japan and then in the rest of the world. In all likelihood, even the company didn’t realise what they were about to unleash on the world. Things started slowly but began to escalate.
The key difference when compared to the Petz games was the portability. At a time when most computers were clunking, ugly heavyweights, the thought of owning a digital pet meant having to deal with RAM and operating systems, as well as floppy disks. Everything was tethered to a desk. But not the Tamagotchi.
Aki Maita’s stroke of genius was in reducing the joy of the virtual pet into such a small form factor. As the designer, she fit everything people loved about Catz and Dogz into a device smaller than the palm of a person’s hand. It even had a key-chain hook. Right from the first moment, it was intended to be portable and that meant that the pet could travel everywhere with its owner.
The Tamagotchi devices were colourful, filled with memorable (and annoying) chirping sounds, and they kept things simple. Owners hatched an egg (supposedly left behind by aliens) and then had to feed, pet, and clean up after the little creature which emerged. If they failed, the creature would die.
The devices were a massive hit. By 2009, more than 44 different types of Tamagotchi had been released. Sales were measures in the tens of millions and that’s not even counting all the imitators, such as Giga Pets and Digimon. By the end of the millennium, the idea of a digital pet had been completely taken over by the Tamagotchi.
You didn’t have a virtual pet, you simply had a Tamagotchi.

Advancing tech

But just as the Tamagotchi had been made possible by the advances in technology, people weren’t content to stick round with separate devices forever. By 2005, when Tamagotchi sales had already begun to slow down, people were looking for more and more innovative and complex forms of virtual pets.
By that time, the power of portable computers was hurtling ahead at a rapid rate. The Nintendo DS, for instance, was a Game Boy successor which introduced the world to Nintendogs. Nominally a game, it was a landmark moment for virtual pets. Because the handheld device had a touchscreen and a microphone, it was possible speak to your pet to issue commands, as well as stroke it using the stylus when the pet obeyed.
Such interaction ushered in a new era of virtual pets, changing the way we interacted with digital creatures. No longer were we limited to just pressing buttons and a relevant command being issued – now we could stroke, coddle, pet, discipline, and even speak to our animals. Along with the constant improvement in graphics and greater complexities in the world of AI, our virtual pets were becoming more and more like the real thing.

The smartphones

But as the games for the handheld consoles became more and more complicated, a rival was building steam behind the scenes. The rise of the smartphone has been on of the biggest advances in technology in the last decade. Though it wasn’t the first powerful phone, the Apple iPhone perhaps has to take the credit for the next step in our story. When the California company eventually introduced apps to their device, they changed everything. No longer did you have to own a dedicated device to care for a virtual pet – now, they could live in your phone.
The rise of the smartphone virtual pets combines most of what we have known and loved about virtual pets over the years. From the Tamagotchi, there’s the constant sense of care attached to the creatures. You carry around your phone everywhere, bringing the pet with you. Everyone has the potential to own and care for a virtual pet and the tech is pervasive, right down to the pedometer built into the device which can be used to count your steps as you take a virtual pet for a walk – something taken straight from the Tamagotchi devices.
What’s more, the very nature of the smartphone means its able to use many of the tricks which made Nintendogs so successful. With the touchscreen and the microphone which are used for normal operation of the telephone, you can talk to and pet your virtual critters without any additional hardware. With the click of a button, you can download a digital kitten and begin petting it right away, all with the same device you use to order a pizza or call your parents.
Even the raw computing power takes us back to the PF Magic days. The sheer computing power found in most modern smartphones has made it possible to provide users with photo-realistic graphics. You don’t need a clunky PC to access the best graphics anymore, it’s possible to use your smartphone to achieve something far, far more impressive.
In essence, the modern range of smartphone apps mean that we’re living in a golden age of virtual pets.

Why apps?

But with so many different virtual pets out there, it can be hard to pick one which is right for you. One quick look through a ranking of the best virtual pet apps will reveals one of the best qualities of this new app-driven age. With so much variety, it’s possible to find the perfect pet.
Back when we all used Tamagotchi devices, the market was flooded with various options. Cats, dogs, birds, dinosaurs, dragons, and so on were all available, but you had to buy a dedicated device. Similarly, anyone using the virtual pets available on the Nintendo DS would have to buy an individual game. Nintendogs, Nintencats, and a huge slew of add-ons and expansions allowed you to narrow your choices down to individual breeds and colours. Want a Golden Retriever? Want a tabby cat? That’s fine, but you’ll need to invest in the various types of DLC.
With the apps, that’s less of an issue. All of the variants can be built into the app and thousands more are available at the click of a button. Furthermore, many of them are available for free or at an incredibly low cost. It’s never been cheaper to own a virtual pet and it’s never been easier to get the exact pet you want.
Added to that, the added hardware that comes with owning a smartphone means that being able to record pictures, videos, and sounds provides a whole new way to interact with virtual pets. One of the most popular pets on the various app stores is Talking Tom Cat. As well as possessing many of the familiar traits that we can trace back to the Tamagotchi craze, the Talking Tom Cat also allows for the pet to talk back to you. Whether through recordings or voice processing software, it’s possible to have an entire conversation with your virtual pet, something which would have been unimaginable with the cluster of blurry pixels that we found on the early digital pet devices.

Another one of the most interesting ways in which the virtual pets have evolved is the added gamification of the software. Back in the Tamagotchi and Digimon days, being able to pet, feed, clean up, and maybe even battle your pets against one another was the height of sophistication. But now, you can play games and complete challenges with your pet, allowing you to earn in-game currency or grow your pets’ stats like a traditional role-playing game. It’s one of the ways in which virtual pets have become more like video games (meanwhile, many video games have taken on the qualities of virtual pets – but that’s a whole other article).
As our virtual pets have become more and more complex and sophisticated, those who prefer the gaming side of the experience can focus on that while those who simply like caring for their creatures don’t have to worry about the added new features. All you have to do is download the software which suits your needs.

The history of the virtual pet is fascinating and – thankfully – it’s nowhere near over. From the Tamagotchi to the Gameboy games, we’ve always loved being able to buy and care for digital creatures. But everything we loved about those older devices, software suites, and games is now a part of the virtual pet experience. We can now tailor our pets to suit us and we can make sure that we are getting the exact experience we want. Really, there’s never been a better time to own a virtual pet!

The History of the Sony AIBO: The first (almost) mainstream artificial intelligence pet

In 1977, the infamous BBC sci-fi series Doctor Who introduced K9, a robotic dog which served as a companion to the time-travelling protagonist. The robot’s name – a not-so-subtle pun on the word canine – would quickly become the go-to moniker for any kind of artificial, bionic, or android dog. At the time, the very notion was pure fantasy, much like the time travel machines and alien invasions which featured on the show.

But there’s something about the idea of a robotic dog which strikes a chord in the human heart. The juxtaposition between the far-flung future and humanity’s archaic past is contained in the shoddily constructed K9 prop. Man’s oldest friend, married to our most advanced technology. There’s something inherently loveable about a robotic dog.

But robot dogs no longer live solely in the realm of science fiction. The Sony AIBO was the first time that consumer could buy an actual, fully-working robotic pet. It could do everything, developing an almost-real personality which caused plenty of owners to fall head over heels in love. Heck, the AIBO was – in some ways – far more powerful than Doctor Who’s erstwhile pet.

In this article, we’ll examine the history of Sony’s AIBO, finding out just how (and why) we’ve reached the point where the idea of a robot dog is no longer futuristic, it’s downright nostalgic.

Early Years of AIBO

To understand the AIBO, we have to look back at the CSL, Sony's Computer Science Laboratory. While Sony had a long history of innovation (the Walkman and the camcorder, to name just two paradigm-shifting products), they’d begun to struggle by the early 1990s. Sales were down and the failure of the Betamax still haunted the company. Set up in 1990, the CSL was intended to compete with Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center and develop the next generation of stunning new technologies.

One of the very first products developed by the CSL was an operating system named Aperios. While no one knew it at the time, the technology would go on to form the foundations of the AIBO’s software systems. It used pattern recognition, tracking data from live video feeds and using artificial intelligence to interpret meaning.

When Nobuyuki Idei took over at Sony in 1995, he was so impressed with the results from the CSL that he pivoted the company’s plan of action to include more and more of the laboratory’s creations. In doing so, he launched a new era at Sony, one in which “Digital Dream Kids” was both the slogan and the ethos.
Sony wanted to produce fantastical, wonderful technologies which captured the imagination like nothing else on the market. This gave birth to the AIBO.

Doi’s Child

In many ways, the AIBO is the child of Toshitada Doi. One of CSL’s most revered engineers, Doi has described CSL as being “like a pipe,” in that concepts developed in the lab go on to be consumer products and the engineers who work on them are eventually found at every level of the company’s R&D division. It’s Doi who’s most closely associated with the development of the robotic dog.

In 1994, he was part of a team working on artificial intelligence and robots. He teamed up with AI expert Masahiro Fujita and together, they developed a unique way of thinking about robotics. While most people were thinking of the commercial and industrial applications of artificial intelligence and robotics, they believed in the entertainment value of robots and AI, theorizing that novelty and curiosity could help capture people’s attention and make them fall in love.
People would more readily overlook flaws and errors in an entertainment product, they argued, than one which performed critical functions. Presenting their cutting-edge research to the world in a ‘fun’ package would allow the CSL team to develop state-of-the-art vision tracking and speech recognition tech which people didn’t just use, they loved.

They already had the Aperios operating system, they just needed to find it a home. Early experiments were promising, especially a robot named MUTANT. Though it only reached the prototype stage, many of the technologies later found in AIBO were first developed in MUTANT – it could track a ball, perform karate moves, shake hands, and even sleep.

Bringing the Dog to Life

As successful as MUTANT was technology-wise, it wasn’t quite up to the standards needed for a wider release. Consumers needed to fall in love with the robot, so Doi and Fujita reached out to Hajime Sorayama, an artist. Casting aside the utilitarian design of MUTANT, Sorayama introduced the distinctly-canine aesthetics of the early AIBO prototypes and the eventual releases. Indeed, Sorayama’s designs were so vaunted that they’re included in the Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian, as well as winning plenty of contemporary awards.

It wasn’t until 1999 that an AIBO model was ready for the mass market. Early models possessed six legs rather than four and contained many variations on the various technologies inside the body of the robot. Even though the intention had never been for Sony to release their research project as an actual product, Doi and Fujita’s design ethos – coupled with a building excitement for the first ever consumer robot – made the commercial sale of the AIBO an inevitability.

Pronounced ‘eye-bo’, the name was a combination of the initials A and I (artificial intelligence) and the third and fourth letters of the word robot.

Conveniently enough, AIBO also happens to be the Japanese word for friend or companion. By the time the first generation of AIBO products were launched, that’s exactly how they were marketed: a loyal, lovable robot dog with whom you could form a bond.

The initial launch in Japan was a roaring success. Despite the high price tag, Sony sold 3,000 AIBO units in just twenty minutes. A few months later, after the initial run had sold out, a second wave of 10,000 was released and Sony received 135,000 orders. By any metric, the AIBO exceeding sales expectations.

Evolving the Product

But Sony were reluctant to produce too many AIBOs. Not only was exclusivity and limited demand a tool for keeping interest in the product high, the company decided that such small manufacturing runs allowed them to monitor and address feedback from the models out in the wild. Afterall, AIBO was still a CSL project at heart – research and data were invaluable, even if it made the AIBO’s economy of scale much less profitable.

Of course, the immense success of the first generation of AIBOs led to the development of a second generation. An updated model was released a year later and included facial LEDs, better mobility, and touch sensors. Customers had requested certain features, so the next AIBO possessed voice recognition and the ability to record names. These technologies were way ahead of their time and, as we’ll see later, manifested in plenty of later technologies.

Over the coming years, Sony kept working on new AIBO generations. Models were designed to look futuristic or like lion cubs; cost-effective options were introduced; batteries were improved; wi-fi was added and then mobile connectivity; and acceleration sensors, microphones, and cameras were all fitted. While the first-generation sold in its thousands, the third-generation models launched in 2005 sold in their tens of thousands.

All Dogs Go to Heaven

But the AIBO wasn’t going to stick around forever. Despite the good sales figures for the first generations of the robot dog, excitement diminished and even constant re-designs couldn’t hold people’s attention. Eventually, AIBO was deemed a commercial failure and – in 2006 – production ceased amid a flurry of cost-cutting measures at Sony.

While the project might have been a commercial failure by the time of its demise, it had certainly achieved a great deal of its initial goals. The very idea of a robot pet had seemed futuristic and bizarre in 1999. But seven years later, the market was flooded with alternatives and the concept had gained mainstream attention. Exactly as the scientists at CSL had hoped, the AIBO project had become the proving ground for a generation of technology and it had been accepted by the mass market.

Perhaps the best indication of this was the strong attachments people formed to their robotic pets. An AIBO wasn’t just a device or an appliance, something to be switched on and off at will or left on a shelf to gather dust. It reacted to its owner, it developed a personality of its own, and it became a real companion for many people.

So many people were so strongly attached to their AIBO pets that, when the batteries failed or the product broke, the owners held mock funerals for their robotic dogs. In Japan especially, hundreds of people staged traditional Buddhist burials for their pets. As you might expect, Toshitada Doi was ahead of the curve once again. Doi held one of the very first AIBO funerals shortly after the cancellation of the project and 100 Sony employees attended to pay their respects.

Even if the project had died, the community of AIBO lovers lived on. Owners gathered online, sharing pictures, videos, and stories about their robot dogs. As Sony’s support for the project dwindled, they even began an ‘organ donation project’, whereby those units with failing devices could turn to the community for spare parts from broken models.

When Sony’s software updates and legacy support finally stopped in 2014, there was a great sadness in the community. But there are still AIBO units who had endured to this day, even if their numbers are slowly waning.

Leaving a Legacy

By the time support for the AIBO product line had ceased, the device’s legacy was secure. The name AIBO is now synonymous with robotic dogs in the same way that a xerox is the default name for a photocopier or a biro is a typical pen. Just as Doi and Fujita predicated, their invention helped to normalize many aspects of AI across the world. What once seemed futuristic is now almost kitsch.

Indeed, the influence of the AIBO can be seen in many mainstream cultural products from the time after release. Big name American television shows such as Frasier and South Park featured the AIBO (or approximations thereof), as did the cartoons in the New Yorker. Many of these appearances might have poked fun at the concept of a robotic dog, but they helped to acquaint the technology with audiences around the world.

Academics were similarly enchanted by the notion of a robot dog and what it meant for society as a whole. One study conducted by Purdue University introduced AIBO units into a nursing home. They found that the residents were reluctant to conceive of the robots as replacements for real dogs, to the point of animosity. Perhaps the older generations were too far removed from the cultural zeitgeist Doi was trying to capture.

This is certainly reflected in a study of AIBO owners, when researchers carefully examined the modes of expression on an AIBO message board. The team found that owners were able to project emotional states onto their robotic pets – they truly saw happiness and sadness, while forming legitimate social bonds with their pets, just as they might do with an actual dog. There was a perpetual acknowledgement of the one-sidedness of this relationship, however, as the owners were well-aware of the fact that the AIBO remained an item of consumer tech, rather than a real pet.

In both cases, AIBOs eventually faltered when compared to real dogs. But the kindling of emotional bonds between owners and their tech products was a real leap forward for Doi. No longer were Sony selling people Walkmans and appliances. The AIBO was something consumers could truly love. Hence, so many people wanted to mark the passing of their units with a real funeral service. Imagine trying to do that for a phone.

Real Technology

The AIBO’s legacy is not just sociological. Plenty of technologies were introduced to the public via the AIBO, especially in later generations. Eventually, many of these innovations made it into the public sphere and tech we take for granted today was once a part of the futuristic robot dogs.

Most obvious of these is the aforementioned Aperios. Developed as a “real time, object-orientated” operating system with a “reflexive architecture”, it formed the foundation for a wave of Sony products. The same tech which helped the AIBO track a pink ball was later found in televisions and set-top boxes. The robot’s ball tracking skills were made possible by Aperios’s ability to handle high-speed video and audio. Eventually, that allowed cable companies to provide more channels and interactive services. While it wasn’t considered an OS for the internet age, the feedback and real-world data gathered from AIBO units were essential in the development of Sony software.

It was a similar story with the Memory Stick. These days, flash storage is everywhere. If you’re moving or storing large amounts of data, you’ll probably use a USB flash drive or an SD card. Back when the AIBO was hitting the market in 1999, most of the world was using CDs or DVDs to store data. But not the AIBO.

Sony’s robotic dog came pre-loaded with a Memory Stick, a removable flash memory device. While the propriety Memory Stick would eventually become obsolete (not before being used in cameras, games consoles, and audio equipment), AIBO owners were more than used to lifting up their pet’s tail to find a flash drive tucked into place.

In so many tiny ways, from memory formats to battery charging tech, the AIBO was ahead of its time. While it introduced the concept of artificial intelligence as entertainment, it needed advanced tech to make it a reality. Many of the innovations we take for granted today were forged in the strange, curious world of Sony’s robotic dog.

A New Life

While the original run ended in 2006, the AIBO is not dead. As well as the enthusiast communities and the residual users still out there in the world, there’s hope for aspiring AIBO owners yet. That’s right, Sony is planning on bringing the AIBO back.

With launch just a few weeks away (ready in time for Christmas), this brand new generation of AIBOs will build on the technology which Noi and Fujita developed all those years ago. But what they once deemed futuristic and advanced is now almost nostalgic. We live in a world of drone strikes and machine learning algorithms in our smartwatches – a robotic dog which fetches a ball isn’t considered cutting edge anymore.

But that’s done nothing to dampen excitement. There are definite leaps forward in the AIBO world. This time, for instance, the operating system won’t be loaded on a Memory Stick. Instead, it’ll be hosted in the cloud. There’s an app allowing owners to check in on their animatronic pet while they’re away from home and even a high speed cell connection so you can potentially take AIBO out for a fully-internet-connected walk.

Once again, Sony says that the production run will be limited. Just as before, there’s a huge excitement brewing. Expect to shell out close to $3,000 for your chance to own an AIBO and you’ll have to move quickly once they go on sale. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.

It seems strange to say that a robotic dog changed the world but, in a very small yet meaningful way, the Sony AIBO changed everything. It altered the way we think about artificial intelligence and robotics as a consumer product. It made robots a form of entertainment, it made them something we could love. It’s no wonder that the Washington Post is writing glowing articles about the next generation of AIBO products.

In many ways, the future has come and gone and is now coming back all over again. Long live the Sony AIBO.

What are AI Pets and why would you want one?

Artificial pets are just like real pets but powered by artificial intelligence. Your cat or dog or hamster needs food and attention and are lovely. AI pets are very similar that you can play with them but they do not or need a lot less care.

AI pets can also get upgraded over time. Either with firmware upgrades to what your artificially intelligent pet can do or by buying ai pet accessories.

Many years ago when one of the first real domestic helpers entered the homes of people with Romba the cleaning robot, people started to develop connections with their small robotic helpers.

After that AI kept developing and the field of computer vision and image recognition made huge leaps forward. With these technological advances it was possible to create real artificial intelligence pets that were able to identify their owners, play with them and build strong bonds just like with real pets.

Can AI pets replace real pets? Probably not, but they can become low maintenance and fun companions in your home and maybe even household helpers.