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Interactive Yoda

by Tiger Toys

With the release of the Sony Aibo, the world seems to be robotic dog happy. It makes perfect sense. Tamagotchi, Digimon, Pokemon, Monster Rancher, and a host of lesser spin-offs have made digital pets all the rage. The obvious step from "digital pet" is to "robotic pet." Robotic pets are like 3D equivalents of our digital friends – they can play games and interact like their software-oriented ancestors – but they manifest themselves in the real world so you can hold them and touch them in ways not possible with a little beeping egg.

The Aibo may have been the first robotic dog, but Tiger Toys started the robotic pet craze with their Furby. Furbies are now recognized the world over, and there are a host of websites and fan clubs dedicated to the fuzzy little chirpers. Incorporating a processor that is equivalent to the chip that drove some of my oldest friends – the Commodore 64, Apple II, and Vic 20 – Furby managed to pull off a combination of true technological advance and sleight-of-speech trickery that fooled the most battle-hardened kids and adults. The Pentagon even banned Furbies from the office because they were afraid the critters would "learn" top secret information and code words.

On the heels of Furby come two new Tiger Toys products, both electronic interactive "pets" of a sort. The Poo-Chi is a robotic puppy, less advanced than the Aibo, but also much more affordable. Interactive Yoda is less "pet" and more "master." He comes with a lightsaber, which you use to play games with him and learn Jedi ways.

Poo-Chi is about what you’d expect out of a robotic puppy. It doesn’t try to compete with something as technologically impressive as Aibo (Tiger is waiting for the release of their I-Cybie to confront Sony’s elite pop culture juggernaut.), but still manages to be almost as impressive as the Furby. The Poo-Chi comes with a special bone, which you use to mime feeding. There are three sensors on the dog – a touch sensor on its head, a light sensor on its nose, and a sound sensor on its muzzle. The legs are fully articulated, with hips, knees, and ankles, and the ears and tail move depending on what Poo-Chi is doing.

Poo-Chi interacts with you in several ways. You "pet" the dog by pushing the head button, and covering the light sensor, as well as making a sharp noise, will also spark a response. Different patterns of touch, light, and sound will also make Poo-Chi react in different ways. It can bark several different songs, in MIDI-style beeps, and will sit, beg, and stand on its hind legs. Of course, the things bark a whole lot, and beyond that they growl and whimper. The Poo-Chi’s eyes show its emotions – hearts for happy love, blinking for activity, and low and mean to shot it’s upset. If it falls asleep sad, don’t expect it to wake easily or happily. You might find yourself staring down a growling and upset Poo-Chi when you wake it up.

Of course, as with Furbies, two Poo-Chis will interact. If they like each other, they’ll sing a song together and blink happy eyes at each other. If not, they’ll growl and bark at each other. What’s even more interesting is that their emotions toward another Poo-Chi do not stay the same. One minute they may be barking and growling, and the other might see them yapping a rousing rendition of "When the Saints Go Marching In."

On a completely different note, Interactive Yoda is really much more than a robotic "pet." He’s a robotic master, and he’s not necessarily a kind and benevolent master. If you always wondered why Luke was so whiney with Yoda, twenty minutes with Interactive Yoda will teach you. Yoda is truly impressive, and seeks to be a friend and mentor rather than a toy or pet. Many have called him the "Yoda Furby," and the toy has been highly anticipated on the Web, but that moniker is not at all appropriate. Yoda makes Furby look like, well, a little fuzzball that speaks gibberish…

Yoda comes with a mini lightsaber (I figure it’s the practice model, right?) that you use to complete your Jedi training. Between the training, the Jedi question mode, and "Yoda Says," you can play three games with him. Jedi question mode turns Yoda into a glorified Magic 8 Ball, which is much better than the standard Magic 8 ball. Yoda Says is a game of memory. Yoda names different sensors, such as left and right, and you mimic the pattern by squeezing his hands, covering the light sensor, or moving him from side to side. The training mode consists of several levels of excercises where you master a regimen of 21 different lightsaber moves. After completing a level of training, you must answer a series of True/False questions based on the sage advice that Yoda has passed on during your lessons. I never thought my toys would be giving me final exams.

Of course, to accomplish such complex activities, Yoda relies on several sensors, very similar to the Furby. He has a light sensor, touch-sensitive hands, and a position detector that can tell him if he’s upside down or not. Two Yodas interact through infra-red signals, and they are a hoot. While Furbies get together to jabber, and Poo-Chis sing songs, Yodas get together and gossip about their students like two teachers in the faculty lounge. "How does your student?" "Good, he is." "Fun I’m having." And so on. Several Yodas can interact together, turning the playroom into what sounds a lot like a Jedi placement committee.

The only downside to Yoda comes with the subtle unreliability of infra-red signals. Occasionally, no matter how hard you try, it is just damn near impossible to get Yoda to recognize that you did the Spin Strike Left correctly, and after hearing "Patience you must have" for the twelfth time you just wish he’d lay it all out on the table, utter "Suck, you do," and waddle off to his little hut.

Still, Yoda is incredible. Trying to duplicate dogs and fuzzy creatures is difficult, but Tiger has done an amazing job duplicating the look and movement of Yoda’s latex face. It is uncanny how excellent he looks when he shuts his eyes, and his mouth moves almost perfectly. His cute little ears even bob as he speaks, and his forehead wrinkles. Yes, Interactive Yoda is a monument to robotic sculpture.

Keeping with their style, Tiger has released these toys at a great price. You should be able to find Poo-Chi and Interactive Yoda for between $30 and $40 at major toy retailers, and at that price either of them are a steal. Speaking as a former child Star Wars addict (and an adult Star Wars addict, too), any kid who has the slightest interest in the movie series needs Interactive Yoda, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. The only thing that could usurp the Christmas season from complete Yoda domination is Tiger’s I-Cybie, scheduled for release this fall. I-Cybie sports a fully articulated frame, voice recognition, and all of the artificial intelligence that made Sony’s Aibo such a hit. Again, as is Tiger’s method, they will release I-Cybie for a fraction of the price of the Aibo. I can’t wait to get little Poo-Chi a friend.

--Shawn Rider