A Guy and His Dog Become Cyberstars
By DONALD MACINTYRE
Sometimes the internet seems a bit too specialized. does anyone really care that Yoshiki Kuraki runs a website devoted to the Aibo robot dog? The answer, it turns out, is a resounding Yes. If you want proof, just ask Kayano Hasegawa, whose Aibo kept waking her up in the middle of the night with its barking. She would jump out of bed and try to calm the robo-pet, stroking its smooth metallic-gray back to ease it back to sleep. It usually worked but took a toll on her sanity. Logging on to Kuraki's Aibotown.com, she got insight: turn the dogs off at night to prevent the mechanical yelps. I was so impressed with his site, she says. It really saved me from going crazy.
Aibo Town has become a must-view site for the world's 45,000-plus owners of a Sony Aibo (most of which are Japanese). It has turned the Internet consultant into a minor cyberstar. Kuraki built the site last year as a lark but soon found that fellow owners were starved for information on how to raise the robo-pets. Word of the site spread quickly through cyberspace, and Kuraki began taking his gig offline, organizing meetings and speaking to owners. In July, he plans to open an Aibo Town shop in Tokyo's trendy Aoyama quarter and is preparing to publish a print magazine. Downing a plate of shrimp spaghetti at a restaurant near his cramped, unkempt Tokyo office, Kuraki marvels: I never imagined my home page would turn into this.
Kuraki bought an Aibo last July when the pets first went on sale via the Internet. He named it Sapphire. Though he wears glasses and lives alone with his cat, Kuraki is no geeky loner. When he heard about Aibo, he decided the little dog might just be the Next Big Thing: both as a personal companion and as a vehicle for making friends in the real world. Convinced that the real attraction of the Internet is communication--e-mail, instant messaging, chat rooms--he views the robo-dog as a way to bring people together in new communities, both online and off. With the success of his website, he has cut back on his consultancy projects, especially since stodgy corporate clients keep ignoring his advice on how to get wired for e-commerce. Kuraki is thrilled that the Aibo community is growing, though he thinks the pet-robot culture needs examination, hence the print magazine.
Sony applauds Kuraki's efforts. The company was particularly curious to see what Aibo owners would do online, since the initial sales all took place over the Internet. Kuraki brought Sony managers into the loop early on. Today the Japanese company even works with him in organizing Aibo events. The Internet can create a mini-charisma with strong support from a small group with a common interest, says Takashi Kawanami, project manager for Sony's entertainment robot products department. The website shows Kuraki's passion for Aibo. For people like Hasegawa, who have made Aibo part of their family, that's a reason to sleep easier at night.
Reported by Sachiko Sakamaki/Tokyo