Caleb Chung: Playtime with Pleo, your robotic dinosaur friend
December 12, 2007
Pleo the robot dinosaur acts like a living pet -- exploring, cuddling, playing, reacting and learning. Inventor Caleb Chung talks about Pleo and his wild toy career at EG07, on the week that Pleo shipped to stores for the first time.Caleb Chung
- Toy designer
Caleb Chung dreams up toys that interact with children. He's the inventor of Furby, a talking (and listening) robotic furball that sold some 50 million units in the late '90s. His newest plaything: Pleo the adorable robot dinosaur. Full bio
Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I'm a, or was, or kind of am a toy designer.
And before I was a toy designer, oh, I was a mime, a street mime, actually.
And then I was an entertainer, I guess.
And before that, I was a silversmith, and before that, I was --
I was out of the house at about 15 and a half,
and I never wound up going into college.
I didn't really -- I didn't see the point at the time.
I do now, after learning about all the quantum stuff.
It's really cool.
Anyway, I wanted to show you a little bit about the world of toy design,
at least from my small aperture of the world.
This is a video I made when I first started doing toy design.
I'm in my garage, making weird stuff.
And then you go to these toy companies
and there's some guy across the table,
and he goes, "Pass. Pass. Pass."
You know, you think it's so cool, but they --
anyway, I made this little tape that I'd always show when I go in.
This is the name of my company, Giving Toys.
So I used to work at Mattel, actually.
And after I left Mattel, I started all these hamburger makers,
and then got the license to make the maker.
So this is a hamburger maker that
you take the peanut butter and stuff and you put it in there, and it makes --
and this is a French fry maker, little, tiny food you can eat.
I beat up the pasta maker to make that.
Then this is a McNugget maker, I think.
This, now that's the McNugget maker,
and this is a -- this is my oldest daughter making a McApple Pie.
And let's see, you can make the pie and cinnamon and sugar,
and then you eat, and you eat, and you eat, and you --
she's about 300 pounds now.
No, she's not, she's beautiful.
This is how they looked when they came out at the end.
These are a -- this is like a 15 million dollar line.
And it got me through some -- I didn't make any royalties on this, but it got me through.
Next is a compilation of a bunch of stuff.
That was a missile foam launcher that didn't get sold.
This is a squishy head, for no apparent reason.
This is some effects that I did for "Wig, Rattle and Roll."
That was a robot eye thing controlling it in the back.
That paid the rent for about a month.
This is a walking Barbie -- I said, "Oh, this is it!"
And they go, "Oh, that's really nice," and out it goes.
So this is some fighting robots. I thought everyone would want these.
They fight, they get back up, you know? Wouldn't this be cool?
And they made it into a toy, and then they dropped it like a hot rock.
They're pretty cool.
This is a-- we're doing some flight-testing
on my little pug, seeing if this can really grab.
It does pretty good.
I'm using little phone connectors to make them so they can spin.
It's how they, see, have those album things -- kids don't know what they are.
This is a clay maker.
You know, I said -- I went to Play-Doh,
and said, "Look, I can animate this."
They said, "Don't talk to us about Play-Doh."
And then, I made a Lego animator.
I thought, this would be so great!
And you know, Lego -- don't take Legos to Lego.
That's the answer. They know everything about it.
Then I started doing animatronics.
I loved dinosaurs.
I used to be in the film business, kind of,
and actually, Nicholas Negroponte saw this when I was, like, 12,
and anyway, so then they said, "No, you have to make two and they have to fight."
You know, how -- why would a kid want a dinosaur?
This is me using [unclear] or 3-D Studio, back in the '80s.
That's David Letterman.
You can see how old this stuff is.
That's my youngest cousin.
This is a segment called, "Dangerous Toys You Won't See at Christmas."
We had my first saw blade launcher and we had a flamethrower chair.
My career basically peaked here.
And in the back are foam-core cutouts of the people who couldn't make it to the show.
This is MEK going through a windshield wiper motor.
So this is a -- I used to kind of be an actor.
And I'm really not very good at it.
But the -- this is a guy named Dr. Yatz,
who would take toys apart and show kids about engineering.
And you can see the massively parallel processing Nintendos there.
And over to the left is a view master of the CD-ROM.
And a guy named Stan Reznikov did this as a pilot.
This is a -- you can see the little window there.
You can actually see the Steadicam with a bubble on the bottom.
You see the keyboard strapped to my wrist.
Way ahead of my time here.
(Video) I'm getting dizzy ...
Narrator: I love toys!
Caleb Chung: That's all I wanted to say there. I love toys.
OK, so, so that was a, that was the first kind of a --
that was the first batch of products.
Most of them did not go.
You get one out of 20, one out of 30 products.
And every now and then, we do something like a,
you know, an automated hair wrap machine, you know,
that tangles your hair and pulls your scalp out, and --
and we'd make some money on that, you know. And we'd give it out.
But eventually, we left L.A., and we moved to Idaho,
where there was actually a lot of peace and quiet.
And I started working on this project
-- oh, I have to tell you about this real quick.
Throughout this whole thing, making toys,
I think there is a real correlation with innovation and art and science.
There's some kind of a blend that happens
that allows, you know, to find innovation.
And I tried to sum this up in some kind of symbol
that means something, to me anyway.
And so, art and science have a kind of dynamic balance,
that's where I think innovation happens.
And actually, this is, to me, how I can come up with great ideas.
But it's not how you actually get leverage.
Actually, you have to put a circle around that, and call it business.
And those three together, I think, give you leverage in the world.
But moving on.
So, this is a quick tale I'm going to tell. This is the Furby tale.
As he said, I was co-inventor of the Furby.
I did the body and creature -- well, you'll see.
So by way of showing you this, you can kind of
get an understanding of what it is to,
hopefully, try to create robotic life forms, or technology
that has an emotional connection with the user.
So this is my family.
This is my wife, Christi, and Abby, and Melissa,
and my 17-year-old now, Emily, who was just a pack of trouble.
All right, there's that robot again.
I came out of the movie business, as I said,
and I said, let's make these animatronic robots.
Let's make these things.
And so I've always had a big interest in this.
This one actually didn't go anywhere,
but I got my feet wet doing this.
This is a smaller one, and I have a little moving torso on there.
A little, tiny guy walks along. More servo drives,
lots of servo hacking, lots of mechanical stuff.
There's another one.
He actually has skeletor legs, I think, he's wearing there.
Oh, this is a little pony, little pony -- very cute little thing.
The point of showing these is I've always been interested in little artificial life pieces.
So the challenge was -- I worked for Microsoft for a little bit,
working on the Microsoft Barney.
And this is a -- you know, the purple dinosaur with kind of bloat wear.
And, you know, they had lots, just lots of stuff in there that you didn't need, I thought.
And then Microsoft can just fill a, you know, a warehouse
full of this stuff and see if they sell.
So it's a really strange business model compared to coming from a toy company.
But anyway, a friend of mine and I, Dave Hampton,
decided to see if we could do like a single-cell organism.
What's the fewest pieces we could use to make a little life form?
And that's our little, thirty-cent Mabuchi motor.
And so, I have all these design books,
like I'm sure many of you have.
And throughout the books -- this is the first page on Furby --
I have kind of the art and science.
I have the why over here, and the how over there.
I try to do a lot of philosophy, a lot of thinking about all of these projects.
Because they're not just "bing" ideas;
you have to really dig deep in these things.
So there's some real pseudo-code over here,
and getting the idea of different kind of drives, things like that.
And originally, Furby only had two eyes and some batteries on the bottom.
And then we said, well, you're going to feed him,
and he needs to talk, and it got more complicated.
And then I had to figure out how I'm going to use that one motor
to make the eyes move, and the ears move,
and the body to move, and the mouth to move.
And, you know, I want to make it blink
and do all that at the same time.
Well, I came up with this kind of linear
expression thing with these cams and feedback. And that worked pretty well.
Then I started to get a little more realistic
and I have to start drawing the stuff.
And there's my "note to self" at the top:
"lots of engineering."
So that turned out to be a little more than true.
There's my first exploded view and all the little pieces
and the little worm drive and all that stuff.
And then I've got to start building it,
so this is the real thing.
I get up and start cutting my finger and gluing things together.
And that's my little workshop.
And there's the first little cam that drove Furby.
And there's Furby on the half shell.
You can see the little BB in the box is my tilt sensor.
I just basically gnawed all this stuff out of plastic.
So there's the back of his head with a billion holes in it.
And there I am. I'm done. There's my little Furby.
No, it's a little robot on heroin or something, I think.
So right now, you see, I love little robots.
So my wife says, "Well, you may like it, but nobody else will."
So she comes to the rescue.
This is my wife Christi, who is just, you know,
my muse and my partner for eternity here.
And she does drawings, right?
She's an actual, you know, artist.
And she starts doing all these different drawings
and does color patterns and coloring books.
And I like the guy with the cigar at the bottom there.
He didn't test so well, but I like him.
And then she started doing these other images.
At that time, Beanie Babies was a big hit,
and we thought, we'll do a bunch of different ones.
So here's a little pink one, a little pouf on his head.
And here's -- this didn't do so well in testing either, I don't know why.
There's my favorite, Demon Furby.
That was a good one.
Anyway, finally settled on kind of this kind of a look,
little poufy body, a little imaginary character.
And there he is, a little bush baby on -- caught in the headlights there.
I actually went to Toys"R"Us, got a little furry cat,
ripped it apart and made this.
And since then, every time I come home from Toys"R"Us
with dolls or something, they disappear from my desk
and they get hidden in the house.
I have three girls and they just, they --
it's like a rescue animal thing they're going there.
So, a little tether coming off,
it's just a control for the Fur's mouth and his eyes.
It's just a little server control and I made a little video going:
"Hi, my name's Furby, and I'm good,"
you know, and then I'd reach my hand.
He'd -- you can tickle him. When I put my hand up,
"Ha, ha, ha, ha" and that's how we sold him.
And Hasbro actually said, I meant Tiger Electronics at the time,
said, "Yeah, we want to do this.
We have, you know, 13 weeks or something to Toy Fair,
and we're going to hire you guys to do this."
And so Dave and I got working.
Mostly me, because it was all mechanics at this point.
So now I have to really figure out all kinds of stuff
I don't know how to do.
And I started working with Solid Works
and a whole other group to do that.
And we started --
this was way back before there was really much SLA going on,
not a lot of rapid prototyping.
We certainly didn't have the money to do this.
They only paid me, like, a little bit of money to do this,
so I had to call a friend of a friend
who was running the GM prototype plant, SLA plant, that was down.
And they said, "Yeah, well, we'll run them."
So they ran all the shells for us, which was nice of them.
And the cams I got cut at Hewlett Packard.
We snuck in on the weekend.
And so we just had a disc of the files.
But they have a closed system, so you couldn't print the things out on the machine.
So we actually printed them out on clear and taped them on the monitors.
And on the weekend we ran the parts for that.
So this is how they come out close to the end.
And then they looked like little Garfields there.
Eight months later -- you may remember this,
this was a -- total, total, total chaos.
For a while, they were making two million Furbys a month.
They actually wound up doing about 40 million Furbys.
I -- it's unbelievable how -- I don't know how that can be.
And Hasbro made about, you know, a billion and a half dollars.
And I just a little bit on each one.
So full circle -- why do I do this?
Why do you, you know, try to do this stuff?
And it's, of course, for your kids.
And there's my youngest daughter with her Furbys.
And she still actually has those.
So I kind of retired, and we're already living in paradise
up in Boise, on a river, you know. So
and then I started another company called Toy Innovation
and we did some projects with Mattel with
actually with a lady who's here, Ivy Ross,
and we did Miracle Moves Baby,
made it in Wired magazine, did a bunch of other stuff.
And then I started another company.
We did a little hand-held device for teens that could hook up to the Internet,
won "Best Innovations" at CES,
but really I kind of slowed down and said, OK,
I just ... After a while, I had this old tape of this dinosaur,
and I gave it to this guy, and this other guy saw it,
and then people started to want to do it.
And they said they'd spend all this time.
So I said, "OK, let's try to do this dinosaur project."
The crazy idea is we're going to try to clone a dinosaur
as much as we can with today's technology.
And it's not really -- but as close as we can do.
And we're going to try to really pull this off,
intentfully try to make something that seems like it's alive.
Not a robot that kind of does, but let's really go for it.
So I picked a Camarasaurus,
because the Camarasaurus was the most abundant of the sauropods in North America.
And you could actually find full fossil evidence of these.
That's a juvenile.
And so we actually went in.
There's a book called "Walking on Eggshells,"
where they found actual sauropod skin in Patagonia.
And the picture from the book, so when I --
I told the sculptor to use this bump pattern, whatever you can to copy that.
Very, very obsessive.
There's a kind of truncated Camarasaurus skeleton,
but the geometry's correct.
And then I went in, and measured all the geometry
because I figured, hey, biomimicry.
If I do it kind of right, it might move kind of like the real thing.
So there's the motor.
And about this time, you know, all these other people are starting to help.
Here's an example of what we did with the skull.
There's the skull, there's my drawing of a skull.
There's kind of the skin version of the soft tissue.
There's the mechanism that would go in there,
kind of a Geneva drive.
There's some Solid Works versions of it.
Here's some SLA parts of the same thing.
And then, these are really crude pieces. We were just doing some tests here.
There's the skull, pretty much the same shape as the Camarasaurus.
There's a photorealistic eye behind a lens.
And there's kind of the first exploded view, or see-through view.
There's the first SLA version, and it already kind of has the feel,
it has kind of a cuteness already.
And the thing about blending science and art
in this multidisciplinary stuff is you can do a robot,
and then you go back and do the shape,
and then you go back and forth.
The servos in the front legs, we had to shape those like muscles.
They had to fit within the envelope.
There was a tremendous amount of work to get all that working right.
All the neck and the tail are cable,
so it moves smoothly and organically.
And then, of course, you're not done yet.
You have to get the look for the skin.
The skin's a whole another thing, probably the hardest part.
So you hire artists, and you try to get the look and feel
of the character.
Now, this is not -- we're character designers, right?
And we're still trying to keep with the real character.
So, now you go back and you cover the whole thing with clay.
Now you start doing the sculpture for this.
And you can see we got a guy from --
who's just a fanatic about dinosaurs
to do the sculpting for us,
down to the spoon-shaped teeth and everything.
And then more sculpting, and then more sculpting,
and then more sculpting, and then more sculpting.
And then, four years and 10 million dollars later,
we have a little Pleo.
John, do you want to bring him up?
John Sosoka is our CTO, and is really the man
that's done most of the work with our 40-person company.
I'd like to give John a hand. He never gets recognition. This is John Sosoka.
So, thank you, John, thank you,
and get back to work, all right, man?
All right --
-- no, it's very painful, so --
-- these are little Pleos and you can probably see them.
This -- I on purpose -- they go through life stages.
So when you first get them, they're babies.
And you -- more you have them, kind of the older they get,
and they kind of learn through their behavior.
So this one, this one's actually asleep, and -- hang on.
Pleo, wake up. Pleo, come on.
So this guy's listening to my voice here.
But they have 40 sensors all over their body.
They have seven processors, they have 14 motors,
they have --
but you don't care, do you?
They're just cute, right? That's the idea, that's the idea.
So you see -- hey, come on. Hey, did you feel that?
There's something big and loud over here.
That's good, wake up, wake up, wake up.
Yeah, they're like kids, you know.
You, yeah, yeah. Okay, he's hungry.
I'll show you what he's been doing for, for four years.
Here, here, here. Have some money, Pleo.
There you go.
That's what the investors think, that it's just --
-- right, right. So they're really sweet little guys.
And we're hoping that -- you know,
our belief is that humans need to feel empathy towards things
in order to be more human.
And we think we can help that out by having
little creatures that you can love.
Now these are not robots, they're kind of lovebots, you know.
They do change over time.
But mostly they evoke a feeling of caring.
And we have a -- I have a little something here.
Now I do want to say that, you know, Ugobe is not there yet.
We've just opened the door, and it's for all of you to step through it.
We did include some things that are hopefully useful.
Excuse me, Pleo.
They -- he has a USB and he has a SD card,
so it's completely open architecture.
So anyone can plug him -- (Applause) -- thank you.
This is John over here.
Anyone can take Pleo and they can totally redo his personality.
You can make him bipolar, or as someone said, a --
you can change his homeostatic drives, or whatever you want to call them.
Kids can just drag and drop, put in new sounds.
We -- actually, it's very hard to keep people from doing this.
We have one animator who's taken it and
he's done a take on the Budweiser beer commercial,
and they're going, "Whassup," you know?
You -- so it's -- yes, he likes that.
So they're a handful. We hope you get one.
I don't know what I'm missing to say,
but as a last thing, I'd like to say is that
if we continue along this path, we are designing our children's best friends.
And there's a lot of social responsibility in that.
That's why Pleo's soft and gentle and loving.
And so I just -- I hope we all dream well.
- Toy designer
Caleb Chung dreams up toys that interact with children. He's the inventor of Furby, a talking (and listening) robotic furball that sold some 50 million units in the late '90s. His newest plaything: Pleo the adorable robot dinosaur.Why you should listen
Caleb Chung came to toy inventing with the standard background: a career as a mime, comedian and stunt man. A prolific creator of toys from the get-go (he invented some classic McDonald's Happy Meal giveaways), he became a toy-design rockstar in the 1990s with the Furby . Essentially a talking mogwai, the Furby spoke its own language, could communicate with other Furbys, and connected with its owner in a way that sold tens of millions of the dolls. (Versions of the Furby are still in production worldwide -- and are a magnet for tinkerers.)
Retiring to Idaho after this roaring success, Chung started tinkering with another design that uses sophisticated robotics to evoke a deep emotional bond. The Pleo is the result, a supercute baby dinosaur that begins its emotional and intellectual development when you pull it out of the box. After a few deadline problems (centered around the challenge of fitting 37 sensors, 14 motors and 7 microcontrollers inside a realistic dinosaur skin), Chung's company Ugobe (now Pleoworld) shipped Pleo for Christmas 2007.
The original video is available on TED.com