In the first half of the ’90s Dr. Toshitada Doi (the inventor of the compact disc) was working at SONY when he heard that a competitor was going to release a housecleaning robot. Although skeptical of a robot’s ability to perform such a complex task, it led Dr. Doi to formulate the idea of a new type of commercial product that could take advantage of the recent advancements in artificial intelligence, micro processing power, and computer vision. Of particular importance was the simulation of different emotions, which would allow an autonomous robot to adjust to its environment and a user’s needs.
As far as Dr. Doi was concerned, his robot didn’t actually have to do anything useful, which made pitching the idea to the higher-ups a difficult job. In AIBO Town (magazine issue July 2000) he explained his design philosophy:
If I think about what humans are truly searching for – though I am a little hesitant to put it into words – I believe it is love, healing, and relaxation. A computer that provides love and healing for people. That is AIBO.
Among the first prototypes of what would become the AIBO (AI for Artificial Intelligence and BO for robot, also aibo means “companion” or “pal” in Japanese) was a 6-legged robot called Mutant. According to Tatsuya Matsui, who has worked with scientists from SONY involved in the AIBO and QRIO projects:
…since the first prototypes conveyed less an insect than the universally reviled cockroach, a substantial design change was necessary. While the four-legged creature lacked smoothness in movement, it was not however, a liability. In fact, the awkward, rambling gait of the earliest prototype was decisive in Sony’s decision to support the project. Robot development in this field it was decided, cannot be viewed as the development of alternate animals but rather as robots having similar attributes but functions entirely separate from those of living pets. Although AIBO is often called a pet robot it is more accurately in the realm of digital creatures as reflected in its design which doesn’t shy away from its mechanical functions. On the contrary, digital creatures are by design a sum of their mechanical parts.
Around 6 prototypes were created in all. In 1997 the engineers at SONY’S Digital Creature Laboratory created some 4-legged prototypes, followed by a more refined version the following year. SONY developed their own Aperios operating system and OPEN-R software architecture which allows the robots to be built in various configurations using body parts such as a head and limbs. By May of 1999, SONY was ready to establish the entertainment robot market with the AIBO ERS-110.