I found an article giving a short history of Japan’s home tech evolution and how it differs with ours. It’s a fascinating article, and it is giving me a remarkable sense of perspective about my time with Sony back in the early 90s.
Back then, I was the webmaster for the Sony ERA group – Entertainment Robot America. It was the department that marketed the AIBO for the United States. What made the marketing bit so difficult is that all AIBO-related products were conceived in Japan, a much different market than the United States.
In Japan, the brains behind AIBO had a hard time understanding the community in the United States that had formed that loved to hack AIBO. We had an SDK probably only because we had one employee that acted as a technical liaison between the United States and Japan. But it became very messy when one AIBO hacker started releasing software that Americans wanted before Sony could get around to it – software that allowed the user to control AIBO from a computer, and see what it could see through its camera.
It makes sense now why we had to fight Japan on so many issues – while we had no problem conceptualizing things like controlling AIBO from a computer, they were probably left scratching their heads about why anyone would want to do that.
In the end, the death knell for AIBO wasn’t just that divide, but also that the majority of Americans didn’t “get” robots (there was also our very small budget, and it always surprises me when I meet people who don’t know that such an advanced robot was available for purchase). When I was roped into a sales event, the big question was “why don’t I just buy a dog?” (the answer I wanted to proffer was “because a robot doesn’t have vet bills, or need food, or poop on your floor – you dolt”), or “will it fetch a beer for me?” There was a small hardcore community who understood the product, and were beyond happy to have something like that to hack.
In Japan, the average consumer didn’t have the hacker mentality, but for many people there who live in very small apartments, a dog is not practical. This is also the homeland of the Tamagotchi – so the idea of virtual pets was already seeded and blooming. Add on a high cost of living, where younger people live with their parents for a much longer period of time, and you have a larger population with much more disposable income. So while people in America were confused with the $1500 price tag, kids in Japan were excited over owning a little robot pet.
The final axe came after 9/11, when the economy dived, particularly the tech sector. Our target demographic was out of work, and very shortly so was I. I keep getting pieces of the puzzle of what exactly happened during that time period, and the historical and cultural backgrounds that fed into that frenzy. I also keep wishing that we had hung on somehow, because I think if AIBO were released today it would be much more popular than it had been back then…
Well, I do still have three AIBOs sitting around here…