Virtual insanity: the rise and rise of the digital pet
DIGITAL pets have long been big business for video game developers and toy manufacturers - they've been cashing in on the hopes and dreams of children worldwide for over 20 years.
From a computer screen to handheld devices and physical robots, digital pets have a nostalgic place in the hearts of many twenty-somethings that remember the novelty of 'caring' for what was essentially a bunch of pixels. The first widely successful virtual pet franchise was the cringe-inducingly named Dogz, a series of video games for Windows released in 1995 under the umbrella of Petz. Its success spawned Catz, Hamsterz and even Horsez spinoffs, and to date the brand has sold around 22m copies.
But the most memorable pet was the following year's Tamagotchi. Bandai's egg-shaped handset allowed a generation to nurture a digital monster from infancy to theoretical adulthood. In imitation of a real pet, the dependent baby needed feeding, playing with and on occasion, discipline. Failure to adequately care for your pet resulted in an untimely demise, the cause of mass hysteria across the land's playgrounds.
Technological advances facilitated the creation of Nintendogs, Nintendo's pet simulation game which was released to great acclaim in 2005. The console's dual touchscreens and microphone feature allowed players to pet and groom their puppy whilst teaching them voice commands such as sit, roll over and lie down. To date Nintendogs is the second best-selling DS game of all time, clocking up global sales of £23.94m.
And the march of the digital pet continues as Furby, the self-explanatory Robo Fish and robot puppy Teksta are expected to top the wish lists of excited children this Christmas. But now one developer is moving beyond the stark divisions of pixels and fluffy robots to create what he calls the world's first interactive 3D pet.
Pups is the brainchild of video game developer Elliot Myers, and is a combination of interactive iPhone app and clever 3D projection. Users are required to download the free app onto an iPhone or iPod touch and select a puppy breed of their choice, from a jack russell, labrador, west highland terrier or husky. I opt for the westie and name him Warman in honour of my editor.
After feeding and watering Warman through my iPhone, I clip the handset into a tray to slot it into the Looksi kennel, which uses laminated acrylic mirrors to 'project' dual images of the dog inside the kennel. Whilst the graphics are slightly primitive, the illusion of the dog as 3D is actually incredibly clever, as is the way it slides about and barks grumpily when the kennel is tilted. He has decided to be incredibly disobedient.
Myers is seeking funding for the project, which he describes as "a cross between Nintendogs and Tamagotchi", through fundraising site Kickstarter in order to finance further product development, including a dinosaur version. He believes his product strikes an interesting balance between digital and physical play for children, saying: “Kids are growing up faster these days and rejecting physical toys in favour of the physically flat digital experience offered by smart devices."
Whilst I'm not sure that Looksi Pups in its current form has the depth to impact future generations of virtual pets, its innovative technology just might. Increased sensor sensitivity, advanced artificial intelligence and behaviour and more sophisticated manufacturing processes are all likely to foster the next generation of highly interactive, responsive digital creatures.
Futurist Ross Dawson believes that in the future we probably will all have robot pets, and has given speeches about the benefits represented by robots such as Pleo, an animatronic dinosaur. In a video of himself with the robot, he said: "The next generation of robo pets will start to teach children things which are really useful out of the household, as well as being something really lovely we can grow and become part of our lives and families."
So whilst Looksi may have a long way to go, there's no doubt they're scampering at the forefore of digital pet technology. But there's a long way to go before any such pet is half as fun as the real thing.