Pleo and kids

Yeah, I know it’s an annoying GIF, right?

I never got into the whole Aibo/Pleo/Robosapien thing but TC headquarters just sent me a Pleo to talk about for the Crunchies and I turned it on for my 2-year-old son. He was immediately entranced. To my jaded eyes, Pleo looks like another attempt at creating a “life form” that can convince you to love it and care for it. Furby was like that — it held an odd sway over a number of people I know, even some who were old enough to know better — but I’m convinced Pleo and his ilk are different. Whereas my generation (I was born in 1975 and the guys make fun of me for feeling old but I do feel old, but that could just be sleep deprivation) interacted with electronics using the Sterlingian command line, my son’s generation will take direct intuitive and physical contact with electronics for granted. Stick a web server back end to Pleo and watch it walk around and puke when it crashes and you’d get the general gist. Rub the tummy to reboot MySQL, pat the head to clean out temp files, and then tweak the tail to access another server. This is obviously an over-exaggerated simplification, but things like the iPhone and Surface are changing our relationship to technology on a daily basis.

So what did I see when he began interacting with Pleo? Well, I realized that he was immediately comfortable with the proposition of a life-like dinosaur in the living room. He is, in fact, afraid of it the same way he was afraid of these miniature horses we saw last summer in Greece. He knows it approximates a life form, knows that it can move and affect his life, and he doesn’t quite know its limits. Give him a toy train and he’s in control. Give him a Pleo and he doesn’t know who is in control.

Hopefully this isn’t a precursor of things to come. By building novel interfaces that can run powerful systems — think of a nuclear power plant run from one large screen or a set of large screens manned by attentive humans and some machines — we can oversimplify real life processes. While Pleo looks “real” it is not “real.” Like the Roomba, we can’t trust it not to wander off under the table and fall over. At its core, it’s not a very smart machine. But put some if its interface techniques on a complex system and you essentially have a “way in” to understanding that system.

These ideas are half-baked at best but it was quite eye-opening to watch Kasper “know” this animal in a way he doesn’t “know” his Thomas the Tank Engine toys. This is how he will interact with the world — through touch, through movement, and through the physical in ways that we can’t even imagine. Good or bad, things are changing. I wonder where it will leave us command-line nuts.