Saturday, April 23, 2005

Fuzzy Pet Robot Companions

Purr. Whirr. (
By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer

Alexander Libin softly strokes the orange-cream fur of NeCoRo -- a semi-realistic cat-robot packed with visual, auditory and movement-sensitive sensors and weighing 3.5 pounds -- while his wife, Elena, serves tea and cookies.

"She's like a real pet," Alex says. He's petting a tabby nicknamed Cleo and, by gosh, it does look like a cat, or some come-alive stuffed animal from a high-end horror movie. It is much more lifelike than Sony's Erector-Set-like robo-dog, Aibo.


Cleo lounges on the dining table, stretches its paws, arches its back, twitches its tail, opens and shuts its eyes. When it turns its neck you can hear a creepy mechanical whirring sound: reh-uh-reh, reh-uh-reh.

elf-described robo-therapists and affiliated faculty members at Georgetown University, the Libins believe in the restorative value of animal companions. The catbot, they explain, is easier for many people -- the elderly, the allergy-stricken, the autistic and disabled children and adults -- to relate to than a real cat. Developed by Omron Corp. of Japan, the mecho-pets are not yet available in the United States, Libin says.

They do not have to be fed or cleaned up after. Other variations -- a teddy bear and a baby seal -- are in development at other labs, and some people believe robotic pets of all kind will be omnipresent in the near future.

Cleo meows obnoxiously and occasionally hisses unless you touch it a certain way, tripping special sensors, and then it closes its eyes, relaxes and purrs or mews contentedly. "She just got back from a conference where she met 50 people," Elena says, talking about the catbot.

"That makes Cleo a little nervous," Alex says.

"I'm not scared of the robots," says Alex as he pets Cleo. "I'm scared of the people."

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Purr. Whirr. (


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