Sony AIBO ERS-7M3 review

Price when reviewed

It isn’t often that robotic dogs appear in the pages of PC Pro, but Sony’s latest AIBO (Artificial Intelligence Bot) caught our attention. The ERS-7M3 isn’t only a fascinating piece of technology, but also has the capability to help you get a few things done.

Sony AIBO ERS-7M3 review

The main update from the previous model, the ERS-7M2, is the Mind 3 software, which is supplied on a 128MB Memory Stick. Sony claims this offers quicker voice recognition, better pattern recognition and obstacle avoidance than before. There’s also the new brown colour option, adding to the black and white versions.

Entertainment is the AIBO’s primary aim and, aside from people’s initial reluctance to interact with a piece of motorised plastic, it succeeds admirably. In fact, the AIBO’s motion and responses to physical stroking (and occasionally voice commands) are so realistic that many people will find themselves forming a bond with it within minutes.

The ERS-7M3 arrives in Mature mode, although you can change this to Puppy mode and watch it grow into an adult, learning new tricks and gaining its own personality. There are several operation modes that you can switch to at will, including a clinic/settings state, as well as various games and demo modes.

Autonomous mode is the one you’ll use most, though, since it’s what the AIBO was designed for: to be spontaneous and entertaining. For example, it loves being petted on its sensors and will respond by either saying ‘that makes me feel good’ or wagging its tail and offering to shake hands. It can also recognise and respond to words and phrases such as ‘find your bone’ and ‘what time is it?’.

Included in the kit are a pink ball and bone, which the AIBO constantly wants to play with. Show it either and it will recognise it and then either pick it up, nuzzle it with its head or kick it with its paws. What makes the ERS-7M3 so delightful is that it has so many phrases and movements that, even after three weeks, it would still surprise us with a new robotic dance, song, saying or trick.

With 20 motors, the AIBO is fairly agile. It can right itself if you place it on its back and mimics a real dog in most ways. Walking is a disappointment, though. It’s slower and jerkier than you’d expect, and much noisier. We found it never strayed very far, and couldn’t walk over obstacles higher than 1cm. The sensors mean it will avoid objects, although it occasionally continued to walk when facing into a corner.

The included charging station has two markers, which the AIBO recognises from about 50cm away. It can then use these to align itself back onto the station to recharge – an impressive feat, even after you’ve watched the process many times. If you change the default settings, it can wake up after charging, get off the station and carry on.

The battery lasts only about an hour and a half, which is a slight disappointment. Plus, if the AIBO isn’t within around 1m of the station, it often failed to find it and simply laid down on the floor and announced that, ‘now is a good time to charge’.

But the AIBO can also perform many un-dog-like functions, such as taking pictures (at a resolution of 416 x 320 pixels) and – thanks to built-in 802.11b WLAN – can upload them to its own website. It even records a blog with pictures of where it is and its ‘feelings’ throughout each day.

Its wireless capability also means the AIBO can read out RSS feeds and your email, or play music from Internet radio stations or MP3 lists by simply seeing a registered CD album cover. In addition, the House Sitting mode has the AIBO sit on its charging station all day, taking photos and recording sounds each time it detects movement or noise. It can even email these pictures to you.

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