As seen in The New York Time website
• State of the Art: Looking at Aibo, the Robot Dog (January 25, 2001)
• Business Home
• Technology Home
Inside a cavernous New York sound stage, seven hours into an advertising shoot, a small robotic dog decides that it has had enough.
The dog, known as i-Cybie, has been performing tricks all day. Now the creative director wants to see it wag its tail, and Jeff Monte, the prop master, gives the cue. The tail refuses to budge. Puzzled, Mr. Monte hands the dog to Jeff Jones, who for the last year has overseen the development of i-Cybie for Tiger Electronics, and Andrew Filo, an inventor who redesigned the robot. Mr. Filo examines the dog, quickly puts it aside and turns to a backup.
Twitching to life, the second dog shakes its head and straightens its legs. Then it freezes. A burning electrical stench, the smell of disaster, wafts over the prop table. A look of panic passes over Mr. Jones's face.
It is a cold January day, only a month before i-Cybie will be shown to toy-store buyers, and the dog has short-circuited. A moment later, Mr. Jones turns to Mr. Filo and, with a touch of gallows humor, says, "I need you to do an autopsy."
I-Cybie's tortuous journey from inventor's workshop to — Tiger hopes — store shelves reflects the enormous technical problems that toy companies face as they build increasingly complicated products. In the last year, the robotic dog, which will sell for about $200, has hit one snag after another. Mechanical and electronic problems forced Mr. Jones and Mr. Filo to spend the time struggling to make the dog work. As a result, Tiger could not deliver it to stores in time for the 2000 holiday season.
But the story of i-Cybie's creation also underscores a shift in the industry. As toys become more technically complex, the way that children play with them has changed. Classic toys like dolls and stuffed animals require children to create personalities for them. With the latest electronic playthings, it is inventors, not children, who imbue the objects with life and character. So the struggle to build i-Cybie was not just about making it work, or even about making it fun. Mr. Filo and Mr. Jones had to give it a soul.
Tiger Electronics discovered i-Cybie in January 2000 about five weeks before the start of last year's American International Toy Fair, the annual February event in Manhattan that is do-or-die time for toy makers. It is when retailers view and order the products that consumers will see in their stores for the next year.
Tiger had been on the lookout for a robotic pooch since May 1999, when Sony made a splash with its first version of a sophisticated robotic dog it calls Aibo. That model was available only in a limited supply, cost $2,500 and frankly did not do much.
Tiger, about to introduce an immobile whistling dog called Poo-Chi, was hoping to add a more sophisticated robotic dog to its lineup. It found exactly what it was looking for at Silverlit Toys, a Chinese company. Silverlit had a prototype for i-Cybie that, the company promised, would walk around and do tricks. David Medhurst, now Tiger's chief operating officer, who had seen a demonstration of i-Cybie in Hong Kong, and Roger Shiffman, Tiger's president, met with Silverlit executives last Feb. 10, three days before the start of the toy fair. Mr. Shiffman offered to buy the rights to i-Cybie.
"It was an on-the-spot decision," he said. "We liked the sophistication of what they said they were ready to bring to market. We thought it was a shortcut opportunity."
Silverlit, wanting to market the toy itself, was reluctant to sell. But Mr. Shiffman argued that Tiger, originally a maker of hand-held electronic games, could add a much wider range of actions to the dog because the company has focused in recent years on building toys that appear to show emotion and develop personalities. By January 2000, the formula had proved quite successful. For the last three years, Tiger had a string of top-selling toys, with interactive creatures like Giga Pets, Furby and Furby Babies. Now it was planning a line of interactive animals, including Poo-Chi. With i-Cybie, Mr. Shiffman envisioned marrying Furby's personality with a robot's mobility.
Silverlit, although more impressed by Tiger's marketing skills than its technical ones, relented. It sold Tiger the rights to i-Cybie in exchange for royalties and agreed to let Mr. Shiffman's designers and engineers tinker with the prototype. As the toy fair began, Tiger slapped its name on a street-level display window that Silverlit had rented to promote the dog and hastily moved the i-Cybie demonstration to its own showroom. I-Cybie attracted a good deal of attention, and Tiger told retailers that they would have it for Christmas.
But there was one problem. The dog could not walk.
Silverlit executives had said that it could, but Tiger officials said that the dog could only stumble around, not move forward in measured steps.
Tiger had planned to overhaul the appearance to make it less like Sony's Aibo, giving the foot-long, shiny plastic dog large eyes and more of a puppy look. Now it realized it had much more to do than tune its aesthetics.
Mr. Shiffman assigned the i-Cybie project to Mr. Jones, Tiger's senior vice president for product development and marketing. Mr. Jones has worked in the industry for 15 years, for Tiger, Lionel Trains and Hasbro, where his face was immortalized on a G. I. Joe action figure. Over the years, Mr. Jones has developed a sense of what makes a toy fun and what makes it sell. But he is not an engineer. So to make i-Cybie walk, Mr. Jones turned to Mr. Filo.
The year before, Mr. Filo had invented Hit Clips, music-playing key chains that became one of Tiger's best-selling toys. And soon after the toy fair, Tiger bought two more inventions from Mr. Filo — a pair of robotic walking systems that could be fitted to different toys.
In March, Mr. Jones sent two prototypes of i-Cybie to Mr. Filo's workshop in Cupertino, Calif. There, Mr. Filo dug out old robotics studies and examined i-Cybie. He wrote lists of sensors he could add to make the dog interact with people and its environment. He considered different kinds of behavior that it could exhibit. And he took apart the dog to study why it could not walk.
Mr. Filo, 43, has a boyish face and wears a nearly constant smile that betrays the exuberance that keeps toy inventors going. For decades, robotics and toys have thrilled him; he is the kind of guy who takes his wife on dates to toy stores.
Still, Mr. Filo shares the frustrations of all inventors. For every Hit Clips, he has had several ingenious but unsuccessful ideas. Consider Beer Fetch Bob, a robot that Mr. Filo created with a partner in 1982. When given a command by a man watching a football game, the robot would live up to its name. Unfortunately, Bob cost $4,000; at that price, most people would rather get the beer themselves. Bob had few takers.
That is why i-Cybie was such an important project for Mr. Filo. Though it was not his idea, it was the kind of project he could shape by pouring in a lifetime of expertise.
To walk, a robot must know exactly where its legs are. And Mr. Filo realized that for all practical purposes i-Cybie had no "feeling" in its legs. The crude sensor gave it only a rough idea of where it had last moved its legs. So Mr. Filo upgraded i-Cybie's position sensors, essentially giving it a nervous system.
By connecting two i-Cybie prototypes to a computer, Mr. Filo then created a puppeteer tool he called "Monkey See, Monkey Do." That allowed him to manipulate one i-Cybie and have the second duplicate the actions of the first. But in his initial attempt to make the dog walk, it went through the motions of walking yet would not move forward.
Mr. Filo returned to studies of how real dogs walk, trying to imitate an animal's movements more precisely. He improved the synchronization of the legs. Still, it would not walk.
Then he put scales under each of i-Cybie's feet to test its weight distribution and soon realized that he would have to teach the dog to shift its weight from side to side.
Mr. Filo put the dog on a table and ordered it to walk. The dog took measured steps and moved down the table in a straight line. Mr. Filo placed it on a carpet. It still worked.
"It was like breaking the sound barrier," he said. "After it did that, after it walked, it could do anything."
Kevin Choi, the president of Silverlit, said he had been struck by Mr. Filo's robotics expertise. But when he saw i-Cybie's new walk, he said, he was nevertheless surprised by what Mr. Filo had accomplished.
"I was impressed," Mr. Choi said. "It's more like a real dog than a mechanical dog now."
Mr. Filo and Mr. Jones also wanted i-Cybie to interact with the world around it. So Mr. Filo added a microphone to let the dog follow sounds, a motion detector so it can tell when people were moving about it, a different sensor to find objects and another to avoid walls. He also gave the dog a rudimentary sense of balance, the ability to distinguish light from dark and a predilection for chasing objects displaying reflective material. He even added a way for the dog to seek out a recharging system when its battery was low.
Those features effectively gave i-Cybie an independent existence — and allowed Mr. Jones and Mr. Filo to say they were creating something that approximated a real pet.
"It has its own reason for existence," Mr. Filo said. "It preserves its life, it interacts with people, it exhibits lifelike characteristics."
In 1998, Hasbro bought Tiger, in large part because of its expertise in interactive toys. I-Cybie was the kind of product that Mr. Jones's bosses at Hasbro were wanting Tiger to produce.
"There are other robotic dogs," said Alan G. Hassenfeld, Hasbro's chairman and a grandson of one of its founders. "The key is how do you give them artificial intelligence? There really is a fascination when you can take something that is robotic and give it humanity."
To fully create a personality for i-Cybie, Mr. Jones wanted it to do more than walk; it had to move with emotion. In April, Mr. Filo flew to Los Angeles and gave the i-Cybie prototypes to Don Lewis, a puppeteer. Working with other puppeteers, Mr. Lewis first refined the walk, removing unnecessary steps and trying to make the movements appear fluid. He created a trot, which moved the dog faster but gave it less stability. To the basic walk, Mr. Lewis added subtle movements.
"The head is where the personality comes in," Mr. Lewis said. "It can be in different states. We leave the mouth open for happy. If it is sad, it hangs its head."
Some tricks were created intentionally; the puppeteers taught i-Cybie to do a headstand and to sit. Other tricks were happy accidents. Mr. Lewis tried to teach i-Cybie to lie down. The dog fell over. He ordered the dog back up. It stood up, but on the opposite side. Inadvertently, Mr. Lewis had taught the dog to roll over.
The puppeteer work was supposed to take six weeks, but the dogs kept breaking, and Mr. Filo, Tiger's Hong Kong engineers and Silverlit's designers kept refining i-Cybie's mechanics. May slipped into June, which melted into July.
By then, it was clear to Mr. Jones and Mr. Medhurst that there was no way to have the toy ready for the holidays. Tiger still had to make the toy's play patterns work and rewrite its programming.
"Your last opportunity to finish a product for Christmas, if you are shipping from overseas, is in August," Mr. Medhurst said. "So we elected to keep developing it, so we would come up with something better and more intriguing."
Tiger then planned to have the toy in stores by January, another deadline that would slip away.
The pressure, meanwhile, was growing. By fall, Pokémon sales had begun to weaken, and Hasbro, which licensed the rights to make various Pokémon toys, was struggling. On Oct. 12, the company said it would consolidate many of its divisions at its Pawtucket, R.I., headquarters.
Hasbro let Tiger keep its headquarters in Vernon Hills, Ill., preserving its independence. But with that freedom came responsibility to produce top-selling toys, increasing the pressure on i-Cybie.
Then Tiger acquired another high-priced robot, a four-foot-long interactive walking dinosaur. Hasbro had considered shelving the project after it shuttered its Kenner research lab in Cincinnati, but Tiger executives argued they had the technical skill to not only build the raptor, but also to lower the manufacturing costs.
The raptor, Tiger officials decided, would sell for about $100. But the company needed a cheaper robot. It found it in one of Mr. Filo's walking systems. He had demonstrated his mechanism on a G. I. Joe-style figure. But in September, Jason Eastman, a Tiger designer, reconceived Mr. Filo's invention as a riddle-telling boy robot. By November, Tiger's engineers created a prototype. Mr. Jones was delighted.
The same month, Mr. Filo and Tiger's Hong Kong engineers began programming i-Cybie's emotions. Mr. Filo improved its memory, so it would react not only to the last stimulus it received but would change its temperament slowly over time, depending on how it was treated. If, say, the dog was constantly swatted on the nose, a single pat on the head would not put it in a good mood. Mr. Filo also created more complex emotions, making the dog hyperactive if kept in a small box and nervous if left in a noisy area.
But to react properly, the dog would need to recognize human voices, and Tiger was trying to develop its own voice-recognition software. Shortly before Christmas, Mr. Jones and Mr. Filo tested the system.
"It liked Andy's voice," Mr. Jones said. "It would do everything he said. But it didn't like mine."
The toy's voice recognition would have to work from at least six feet away, for anybody and in any language. It did not. Mr. Jones called a halt to Tiger's voice-recognition research for i-Cybie. Another solution would have to be found.
At the prop table, the autopsied dog beside him, Mr. Filo picks up another backup dog and gives it to Mr. Monte. The tail-wagging shot goes fine, as do a couple of others. Then, as the crew does a practice run of i-Cybie scratching its ear, the dog stops cold again.
Mr. Filo hunches over the catatonic dog, then sets it aside and picks up the first dog.
"I got a martini waiting for that dog as soon as we get through this," says Edward Rupp, the creative director, the long hours wearing on his voice.
For the commercial, Mr. Rupp has bathed i-Cybie's stage in red light, and Mr. Filo now guesses that it is playing havoc with the dog's infrared sensor. Mr. Filo suggests that Mr. Monte remove the dog from its Plexiglas stage between shots.
As the shooting resumes, Mr. Filo turns back to the dismantled dog. The plastic shell is removed from the back, and black scorch marks are visible on the main circuit board. An arc of electricity had jumped between two hand-soldered connections and short-circuited the dog. Mr. Filo also finds that various wires have been stretched and damaged.
Mr. Jones tells Mr. Filo that they must talk to the engineers in Hong Kong before any more dogs self-destruct. At 8:30 p.m., Mr. Jones and Mr. Filo retreat to the stage manager's office to make the overseas call.
"We actually blew up one of the dogs," Mr. Jones tells Carmen Fu, the project manager in Hong Kong. "Andy is doing an autopsy. One of the resistors blew up and literally charred the inside of the body."
Mr. Filo tells the Hong Kong team about the wiring problems, but they already know. Billy Young, Tiger's senior electronics and software engineer in Hong Kong, says the wires wear out too quickly, and the team has decided to upgrade to a longer, heavier-gauge wire.
The Hong Kong engineers sound largely unconcerned about wiring. Instead, they seem nervous about the voice-recognition system. Tiger's new deadline to begin making i-Cybies at Silverlit's factory in Dongguan, China, is now March; that will allow the toy to hit stores in May and build up momentum going into the holiday season. But to meet the deadline, Tiger has to have a voice-recognition system ready.
After abandoning Tiger's voice-recognition efforts, Mr. Jones hired Sensory, a Santa Clara, Calif., company that has made voice-recognition chips for other Tiger toys. Mr. Jones invites Ms. Fu and Winston Lee, Tiger's director of engineering in Hong Kong, to join him in a second conference call with Sensory.
Sensory's engineers want to buy circuit boards from a Taiwanese company and mount their voice-recognition chip on them, at least for the first run of robotic dogs. The boards, Sensory officials say, will cost an extra $4 a dog, a price that makes Mr. Lee nervous.
"It's very expensive," he says. "Can we afford it?"
Mr. Jones answers, "No, we can afford nothing."
Sensory engineers reply that they can design and build a custom circuit board for i-Cybie's voice recognition at a fraction of the cost of the Taiwanese board. But designing and testing a custom board will add at least two weeks to the development time, perhaps longer.
"I am willing to take the risk," Mr. Jones tells the Sensory engineers. "I apologize, but cost is king."
Mr. Jones plans to begin production in late March. He can gamble that Sensory can finish the voice-recognition system in time. But adding $4 to the toy's cost would force Tiger to increase the retail price, which Mr. Jones cannot do.
Sony's second-generation Aibo can do things that i-Cybie cannot, like take pictures with a camera in its nose. And i-Cybie will be able to do things Aibo cannot, like avoid falling off of tables. But i-Cybie's real superiority is price. At $200, i-Cybie will sell for $1,300 less than Aibo. And that requires an unrelenting focus by Mr. Jones and his engineers on cutting costs.
Although Tiger officials will not say how much it will cost them to make each i-Cybie, it is clear that the investment is relatively large for Tiger. In all, the company has spent about $2 million on developing the robotic dog, including the cost of creating the tools needed to produce the dog at Silverlit's factory.
Mr. Filo and Mr. Jones walk back to the stage from the stage manager's office. I-Cybie has made it through a half-dozen other shots without a glitch. Now, the production company has sawed the 12-foot diameter Plexiglas pedestal in half and set up the camera so it can move in an arc from below i-Cybie to above it.
The movement of the camera will let the advertising agency create a warp effect. When the toy freezes, the camera will spin around, giving the ad the look of the special effects in the movie "The Matrix."
When completed, the advertisement will have its premiere at the toy fair, which officially starts next Sunday but which has an unofficial opening on Wednesday, when buyers arrive from the major toy retailers. For toy makers, the next two weeks are in some ways more important than the Christmas season, because this is when retailers decide what toys will fill their shelves.
For Tiger, this toy fair will be especially important. Not only is it gambling that toy buyers are still interested in robotic dogs, but it must persuade retailers to stock toys that are far more expensive than ones it has sold before.
The ad is one way Tiger is trying to hedge. It is aimed not at children, but at men aged 25 to 35, who do not generally buy toys but who like gadgets and have money to spend. The strategy reflects Mr. Jones' belief that Tiger has created something that is more than a toy, something that will appeal to a broad range of people.
The last scene to be shot will be the first in the final ad. I-Cybie will walk out of a doghouse and then freeze as the camera spins up and over the dog.
Mr. Monte signals the dog to walk. As the dog takes its first step, Mr. Filo beams as though he were looking at his own child. Walking seems to be the little dog's simplest maneuver. But before i-Cybie met Mr. Filo, that most basic step was impossible. Now, the loping walk, the wiggle of its head and the drop of its mouth make the hunk of plastic and wire seem alive, even soulful.
On cue, i-Cybie steps out of the doghouse, and the camera begins to move out from under him. I-Cybie takes another step forward, then Mr. Monte signals for it to stop. The camera arcs overhead.
"Money," Mr. Monte says, smelling success.
Mr. Rupp, the creative director, looks at the clock. It is 12:02 a.m.
"Let's wrap," he says.