Why don’t all Americans have a robot dog?

There was a time when the little robot dog was among the most coveted objects in the world.

From around 1999 to 2008, all kids had to do was decide which little robot dog they wanted the most. There were so many fantastic options. From Canadian company WowWee, Mega-Byte the Hound Droid, who had a big blocky head and glowing eyes. From Mattel, Rocket the Wonder Dog, who “blasted through space, time, and the Milky-Bone Galaxy in search of a loving home here on earth.”

As toys became more innovative, the industry began to experience major successes. Robot dogs have become cool. In 2000, Sega partnered with Tiger Electronics to create Poo-Chi, a robot dog with expressive LED (red) eyes. If you had two Poo-Chi dogs, they would duet together. Apparently the first 10 million Poo-Chis sold out in less than a year. They were so adorable and recognizable that they were quickly adapted into a McDonald’s Happy Meal toy. Still, they faced competition for the hearts of America’s youth, mostly from ToyQuest’s Tekno the Robotic Puppy, who could learn to perform tricks and emit a very sad whine when ignored. It was Tekno who appeared on the cover of Time magazine in December 2000, wearing an elf hat, standing in fake snow, associated with the headline “Tech Comes to Toyland”. It was Tekno who continued The show tonight. (Today there is a vibrant Tumblr subculture around identifying as Techno. Such is the charm of Tekno!)

Then came the iDog, which was a robot dog that emitted emotions in response to the music you played on your iPod or, in my case, your SanDisk MP3 player. (His body was a speaker.) I haven’t owned a robotic puppy in almost 20 years, but I still think about them from time to time. They are such a good idea; having a little guy who stomps and barks and squirms is so much fun. Years ago, Rocket the Wonder Dog’s marketing promised “a technological triumph,” “your new best friend,” and a companion that would behave “like a real dog.” It seemed like overkill at the time, but supposedly, technology is just advancing. Shouldn’t the robot dog market be a veritable world of wonders?

Out of (childish) curiosity, I decided to take a look at the current state of robot dog technology, starting by browsing the current offerings in an article titled “10 Best Robot Dog Toys (2022)” shared recently on a website called Mom Loves Best. It’s not the author’s fault, but this list is sad. This makes me sad. These toys are either years old (FurReal Friends’s Pax, My Poopin’ Pup came out in 2016), are aesthetically horrifying (Zoomer’s Playful Pup is all plastic except for his fabric ears and tail?), or are extremely functionally limited (Perfect Petzzz’s puppy appears to do nothing but sleep). Many do not move on their own and are remotely controlled, such as a drone or an air conditioner. The list includes the Joy for All Companion Pet Pup, which was designed not for children’s play, but for the social and emotional needs of older people who can no longer care for real pets. His main distinguishing feature is that he has a simulated heartbeat.

Search Amazon for a robot dog and the top results are the stark contrast to the indelible toy icons that might appear on the cover of a national magazine. They are not even nice toys made by reputable companies. These are mostly stupidly named offerings from those fake-sounding Amazon brands, such as SANGKN, Grarg, and HI-TECH OPTOELETRONICS CO., LTD. Store (yes, electronic spelled “electronic”). These are toys like OKK Robot Dog Toys for Kids, Remote Control Robot Toys, Interactive & Smart Programmable Walking Dancing RC Dog Robot, Rechargeable Electronic Pets Gifts for Boys Girls Age 6, 7, 8, 9, 10,11,12, created by a Chinese company you’ve never heard of that also sells heated blankets. Or “RCRobot Dog Toys for Boys Girls Age 3 4 5+, Electronic Dog Pets Programmable Interactive & Smart Dancing Walking Remote Control Robot Dog with Touch Function, Voice Control, Gifts for Kids,” created by a Chinese company you’ve never heard of that also sells massage oil, treadmills, and 23andMe kits. None of these dogs do anything you don’t. a robot dog couldn’t do when I was in elementary school.

Which give? When I emailed Peter Kahn, a University of Washington psychologist and human-robot interaction expert who co-authored a 2004 article on Sony’s high-end Aibo robotic dog and its relationship with various toddlers, he said he agreed with me that the situation was outrageous. He also said he had no idea what caused it. “It seems there has been so little progress from Aibo since, what, 20 years ago?!” he wrote. “Why not? It would be super interesting if you could talk to people inside the companies to try to understand their explanation(s). I agree, but none of the toy companies have responded to my emails, with the exception of Hasbro, who said they couldn’t discuss robot dogs.

Instead, I wrote to the Strong National Museum of Play, located in my hometown of Rochester, New York. Its robot curator did not feel qualified to comment – robot dogs not being a specific area of ​​expertise within its area of ​​expertise – but a spokesperson directed me to Richard Gottlieb, the founder of the consulting firm Global Toy Experts. He had a pretty simple assumption: “These were what we call ‘look at me’ toys, and they didn’t require a lot of user interaction,” he said. “They tend to get a bit boring after a while. I think that’s really the cause of their disappearance. In short, a robot dog isn’t that much fun in the long run, even if you’re sure it will be at first.

He also felt that robots could be threatening. “Any time you have a new way to play, it scares some parents off,” Gottlieb told me. During the Furby craze, parents and scientists expressed concern that children might not understand that their pet robots weren’t actually alive. At the time, sociologist Sherry Turkle and her research assistant Jennifer Audley interviewed children aged 5 to 10 about it. “A lot of times the answer they chose was, ‘It’s not alive in a human or animal way, but in a Furby way,'” Audley said. The New York Times. Parents had to decide if it was heartwarming or really weird.

Different people probably have different thresholds for what they think is acceptable in terms of robot-child interaction. For example, in 2014 Bob Del Principe, the creator of Tekno the Robotic Puppy, introduced the My Friend Cayla doll, which could listen and respond to children, and which was banned in Germany as an illegal surveillance device. (German parents have been told to destroy Cayla dolls or risk paying a hefty fine.) Today, far more than 20 or even eight years ago, parents may have problems with confidentiality about interactive toys in general, having now lived through the age of voice assistants, which has been a little scary.

And so, toy pets evolved away from listening, thinking, learning, and moving on their own. When I spoke with Jennifer Lynch, writer and trends analyst for the toy industry trade association, she insisted that pet toys are more popular than ever, but manufacturers of toys don’t focus on iteration in the realm of robots. “As with any toy space, innovation in the category ebbs and flows,” she told me. Today, innovation in pet toys is driven by YouTube and TikTok unboxing videos. The best-selling toys are those that can be turned into captivating and colorful video content. Giving the examples of Hatchimals (little stuffed guys that come in plastic eggs that you “hatch” in your house) and Magic Mixies (little stuffed guys that hatch in plastic cauldrons that you keep in your house) , Lynch told me that “the unboxing around the pet has become more of a magical element for the kids.

This brings me to the final problem: robots are no longer magical for children. It’s like school or the evening news. Outside of the toy aisle, they’ve gotten a lot more advanced and STEM-y, and arguably more sinister. Famously, these robot dogs can do backflips and dance routines for our amusement, and more of them can carry guns and act like cops. This means that even children can no longer live in an innocent state of fear when faced with something that acts, in some ways, as if it were alive. They are forced to pierce the curtain and face reality. Tragically, the weird-looking (skinless and fleshless) metal dogs of the 2010s and 2020s have now inspired educational robot dog toys that are so ugly and are designed to help children learn to code. Lord.

It was amazing not knowing why Tekno the robotic puppy was the way he was, or how he decided when to bark or squirm. But it would be too terrifying to grow up not understanding how these robot dogs brain works.