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Sunday, October 21, 2007


Pleo Dinosaur - Ugobe's John Sosoka answers Pleo Questions at Maker Faire

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Recently, Julie Crabill of ShiftComm, Ugobe's elite public relations firm, interviewed John Sosoka the CTO of Ugobe. This interview took place at the fascinating Maker Faire, the two-day, family-friendly event that celebrates arts, crafts, engineering, science projects and the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) mindset. Ugobe had a booth at the show to demonstrate their passion and support for the hacking community. During the interview John answers questions posed on the Pleo World forum by members of the forum. You can see the original forum thread where the questions were posted here. The questions ranged from user questions about Pleo's ability to learn and change over time, to hard core queries about Pleo's technical specifications, and also concerning the upcoming tools Ugobe intends to provide for customizing and hacking Pleo. One thing that is obvious from the interview is John's true passion for his work and for Pleo. During the interview, Pleo fusses and fidgets while John is unable to stop himself from petting him. You can watch the original video interview here.

Note: There were technical problems with the audio during the interview which could have led to transcription errors by myself. Any notes from myself as an editor are in curly braces. Please check with ShiftComm or Ugobe before treating any statements as being accurate or factual; especially if you cite this article or intend to make a purchase decision based on the content of this transcription. Also, the acronym PDK stands for Pleo Development Kit.

The transcription is immediately below this unbearably cute video of Pleo astonishing and delighting a group of adoring people. Click here to buy a Pleo of your own.

Maker Faire interview with John Sosoka of Ugobe

: Hello, welcome to Maker Faire with Ugobe, we're having a little bit of technical difficulties with our ability to do this broadcast live, rather I'm here with John Sosoka, broadcasting from the Maker store and recording Ugobe on and the forums today and for weeks and months to come. So let me introduce John Sosoka, the CTO of Ugobe.

{ John has a Pleo in his arms. His love for the little feller is obvious because despite the ongoing interview, he can't help but pet the baby dino.}

John: Yes Julie. I want to talk about a couple of things. I'm CTO of Ugobe so I'm in charge of the technical direction of the company and I also have the great pleasure of running the research and development group which if you have seen the videos on the web site is a fabulous group of people. We're here showing off Pleo trying to introduce some of things that can happen with Pleo and our "Make"-like attitudes with Pleo . One of the things people have been asking me about is Pleo's availability. Pleo will be available later this year and we're taking online orders with I believe.

People ask why would you do something like this, why would you want to build something like a Pleo. You know I think it's really basic that it's something that people have wanted to do forever. People have wanted to scoop up a handful of mud, create a golem and send it off to do your bidding; to animate life, to create things that are alive. We are fascinated by life. What we're trying to do is take the technology that has been developed and the computer power that exists now and try to package it up in a different way. In a way that you can react to, and interact with; something that's like a little living being. That's why we want to do it.

The job is an interesting job. It's part art, it's part engineering. There's software development, research, and manufacturing. It's a fabulous job that attracts qualities from different fields and allows me to work with amazing people. One of the questions I've been asked is "What really surprised me about this job?". One of the best things about working with my friend Caleb is that we've gotten into trouble creating all kinds of bizarre things for many years. It's really fun. The kind of art and imagination of this guy is unbelievable, we have a great time together. Now we have this unbelievable team of people with all different skills from all over the world. That makes for a fabulous opportunity. A lot of what we're working on is just getting the hardware right because we can do firmware upgrades whenever we like, but we can't reach into your house and change a motor. The basic physical structure is getting a lot of the attention right now. Pleo does have his USB port and an SD card to allow Pleo to be updated. So you'll constantly see people trying to do things with it. And of course you can create things on your own in true "Maker" fashion.

I think we have a few questions from the forum so ask away and I'll try to answer them.

Julie: The first question comes from ryane on the forum. Ryan asks "I'm curious about simple customization of Pleo's behavior, moods, and drives. How much can we tweak him?"

{ John has to put Pleo down because the adorable little fellow is fussing too much. }

John: So the initial thing we will do is provide opportunities for you to either take over control of Pleo or do easy customizations like new animations, creating your own sounds, things like that. Over time I'd love to be able to provide mechanisms to play with (Pleo's) "drives", a project that is near and dear to my heart. To be able to play with a synthetic personality I think is a really interesting thing for educational purposes. It is something I want to do, we just don't have a time window for it.

Julie: One more question from ryane on the forum, "Could we possibly even take away drives such as hunger and desire for interaction?".

John: Again I think that is something I think would be great to do, it's consistent with our mission, but it's not on the top of our list of things to do right now.

Julie: Now here's one from amjoie on the forum, "If I play with Pleo until the battery is exhausted and needs recharging, is it recommended that I rest Pleo for a specific amount of time before I put in a freshly charged spare battery -- or can I just change out the battery and continue playing with Pleo?"

John: Generally with Pleo you could just change the battery and keep on playing but if you think about it, Pleo is subject to the same physics that your dog is. If you take the dog for a really hard run and then your brother comes over and wants to take the dog for a really hard run, the dog will probably do it but it will get a little tired and may have to rest sooner. The same physics and heat build up issues affect Pleo so if you're just playing and he's just kind of hanging around it's no problem. But if you're playing really really hard you might want to let him rest.

Julie: One more question from amjoie right now, "If I discover Pleo has a bad habit can I eventually change it with determined training?".

John: Well our expectation is that anything you can train Pleo into, you can train Pleo out of eventually. You could have a "rescue" Pleo that someone has done terrible things to and trained badly. In the first version of Pleo we're just getting the basic things taken care of like the hardware and the basic sensory system. You'll see responses to Pleo playing with you but they'll be much more pronounced in future firmware downloads, when we get time to concentrate on that. That's our goal.

Julie: Ok. Here's one from pleoguy101 off the forum, "As Pleo gets older will he be able to walk faster than he did as a baby?"

John: When Pleo is first hatched he barely can hold himself up so you'll see a big difference between Pleo as a hatchling and Pleo as an juvenile. Over time we'll just have to see what comes out of the lab.

Julie: Alright, another one from amjoie, "Will Pleo continue to learn, grow, and change, for his entire existence?".

John: That's also in for Pleo to be able to do. It's one of those things where there are lots of things Pleo has some control over, where we won't know necessarily what he's going to do. But he has the capability to make adjustments to future behavior in response to the way Pleo is being interacted with.

Julie: Ok. Here's (another) one from pleoguy101, "How far can Pleo hear from, could he hear me from across the room, or if I yelled could he hear me from my driveway to my house?".

John: Human hearing is amazing. Animal hearing is amazing. Pleo can hear pretty well between different sounds. In our labs if we have a Pleo just hanging around and someone says "Hey can you get me a drink while you're up?", Pleo will turn around and watch him from across the room. Over here at Maker Faire with all this stuff going on and with so much sound bouncing off of everything it's hard to tell what Pleo would pick out. If you're in a quiet room or a quiet neighborhood and you're yelling from across the driveway I think Pleo would be able to pick it out.

Julie: Here's another one from amjoie, "Is there anything I can do, to entice Pleo to come to me when I want his attention?".

John: Generally Pleo tries to entice you when he wants your attention. There's is a little trick that you could possibly do. It'll probably be posted on the forum so keep an eye out for that. It's kind of fun.

Julie: One from ryane, "How hard will it be for programmers using the PDK to add voice recognition? is it really possible?".

John: There actually are some researchers working with Pleo, to do some simple voice recognition based on some algorithms that came out of A.I., but the original PDK is about Pleo's performance overall. In order to play with voice recognition you have to write it in C or assembly code. While possible, it won't be supported by the PDK tools at first, although we won't do anything to stop you. We want to get the controls in to let people to quickly be able to play with the sensors and motors, and things like that. Over time we will create better tools for people to do lower level things with Pleo.

Julie: Another from ryane, "Will the software we use to alter Pleo's traits be downloadable to use offline?".

John: I really expect so. We don't have an idea yet of what we will do in that area. My expectation of the way I see it working is that it would be a requirement of the PDK. This is subject to change as we play around with it.

Julie: Here's one from gallamine off the Pleo web forum, "Will Ugobe encourage "hacking" in the good sense and expanding on Pleo, or will it be an evil corporation like Sony and discourage and punish those that try and be creative with its product?".

John: That's why we're at Maker Faire, we love this. We're of this community and we want to make it as easy as possible to discover this phase. This is a really interesting area. People will have brilliant ideas of what to do. We will allow them to implement them. We want to see what can be done. I'm sure a lot of people will come up with things where we'll say "Oh man, I can't believe I didn't think of that, that is so cool!".

Julie: Another one from gallamine, " For the experienced engineers and programmers out there, how low will the SDKs for Pleo go?". { Editor's note: low is used here in the sense of how close to the robot's operating system will the programmer be allowed to get. Asked differently, will the SDK provide direct access to the lower level systems like motor/servo control, sensor data feeds, etc. }

John: That's not our initial goal except in certain cases where we are working with researchers and universities. We actually started with some proprietary software at first and one of the reasons I wanted to make the switch was to allow programmers to just get gcc and some other tools and you're good to go. You can run gcc and just start working your way through it. It's not that complicated. We hope to provide more support and certainly I know people and friends who don't work for Ugobe who will figure stuff out all on their own.

Julie: I bet. Here's a question from iKrolm, "Will there be more models of Pleo coming out in the near future and will it be the same shape or a new animal?".

John: Well that's up to you I guess to some extent. At Maker Faire we showed a hack that one of us did where we changed Pleo's skin to be fur and it actually still functioned, which is very cool. You could go and start to create your own versions . You could come up with different paint schemes, different colored skins and other things. In terms of what I would try to start doing with Pleo that might be fun? Life forms is such a big area that what I would really like to see Ugobe do is to go in very different directions and try different kinds of life forms. Things that hopefully people can use as a basis for creating new things of their own.

Julie: How about one more from ryane, " Will Ugobe release firmware updates? If so, how many updates do you think Ugobe will release for Pleo?".

John: We're very excited about the idea of being able to release updates. I think everybody back at the lab has some feature which they are totally in love with that wasn't in the basic package, and we can't wait to get firmware releases out there to show off things we can do with Pleo. The number of releases will depend on when we have new things from research. We'll watch and see what comes up on the forum. Bring up things you want to see that may be irresistible for us!

Julie: Another question from pleoguy101, "Can Pleo tell the difference between things moving on TV or in real life?".

John: Not really. Pretty much if it's on TV Pleo thinks it's real. If he sees motion on TV he'll respond to it like it was motion in the real world. {John points out the Pleo has fallen asleep right now.}

Julie: Here's another one from ryane, "How much internal memory does Pleo have and how fast are the CPU's in Megahertz?".

John: Remember Pleo has an SD card slot which can be upgraded with larger capacity SD cards. In terms of Pleo's internal memory, the main memory in Pleo is 4 megabytes. I think Pleo is in the 50 Megahertz range for the main processor and 64 Megahertz for the processor in the back.

Julie: Here's one from MonkeyMoo, "Is Pleo going to be able to interact with other robots? Such as AIBO?".

John: Pleo uses infrared primarily for interaction and that will allow him to interact with other things. Pleo can interact with other Pleos. It's one of those things that can be reprogrammed, or if the other side is more flexible than just reprogram the AIBO who can talk through infrared to Pleo.

Julie: Here's the last question from the web site, another one from gallamine, "How easy will it be to remove Pleo's skin to reveal the engineering inside?", a common question here at Maker Faire with all the hackers.

{ Hilarious moment as John playfully picks up Pleo by the skin of his back and says ... }

John: Pleo let's take your skin off! { Julie laughs. } Removing Pleo's skin is really easy. Putting it back on again is pretty tough. The skin's tough, it holds up to abuse fairly well. { Pleo bays unhappily and appears to be pretty unhappy about this current talk. } He doesn't like the idea of cutting his skin off. Once you cut it, you can cut through it with an X-acto knife pretty easily so it's removable.

Julie: Well thanks for joining us here at Maker Faire, John, and thank you for joining us Pleo.

{ John picks up Pleo and pretends to be the voice of the baby dino. }

John (as Pleo): Thanks for the great questions!

Julie: Stay tuned on the forum for more answers to your questions that John wasn't able to answer here. Post them on the forum and we'll get them answered for you.

John: Thank you!

[UPDATE: 10-25-2007] Here's another Maker Faire video I found where SciVestor Chief of Research Ray Renteria asks John Sosoka "Why A Dinosaur?":

{ END }
Robot Central has now posted 8 videos of our sit down with John Sosoka. The topics are:

* Can Pleo sing?
* John on industry standards.
* What language are Pleo’s behaviors written in?
* John on Pleo’s sensors.
* Will there be other Pleo family members?
* Do Pleo’s behaviors evolve?
* Why a dinosaur?
* Is Pleo programmable?

You can read the interview summary and see the videos at:
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