Last October I pledged to make it my life’s work to acquire Sega Toys’ adorable Yume Neko Smile, a robot cat that momentarily seized the blogosphere with its lifelike movements and blinking eyes. True to my post, I emailed Sega and begged/cajoled/threatened them, sadly never to receive a reply. Then, early in December, a kindly commenter left word that CScout Japan were selling Yume Neko – I instantly fired off an email hoping to get a PR contact; instead, they were generous enough to send me one themselves.
And that brings us up to now, and the story of how a white, furry automaton stole my heart.
Yume Neko Smile (translated as “Dream Cat Smile”) stands 13-inches tall and weighs around 4.5lbs. Currently available solely in white, she’s powered by three ‘C’ batteries and comes equipped with five different sensors hidden in different parts of her body, each of which react to touch. In terms of motion, Yume Neko can’t chase mice (her rear legs are articulated but hang still when you lift her by the scruff of the neck) but she’ll blink, move her mouth, her neck, rear up and lie down, all the time purring, meowing and – should you upset her by squeezing her tail – hissing. After a period of being left to her own devices, like most cats, she’ll fall asleep, briefly snoring before settling down into a low-power mode.
And yet it seems all a tad cold to discuss this robot cat as, well, just that – a robot – because after slotting in the batteries and flipping the switch (all hidden behind a velcro-closed flap in her stomach) you soon lose sight of the fact that she’s anything less than real. Grown adults coo and fuss over her, stroking her head, tickling her under the chin, all the time gasping when she meows, or growls, or suddenly sits up and blinks in apparent astonishment. It’s strange: you can hear the motors whirring, the sounds are pretty obviously electronic recordings, and there’s no warm body beneath the polyester fur, but your senses conspire to reduce you to treating Yume Neko as if she were alive.
Part of it might stem, I think, from the mystery of what exactly lurks beneath that glossy coat. Now I haven’t opened her up, vivisection not being my scene, and so I’m not entirely sure where the sensors lie and what exactly they do and don’t respond to. Compared to, say, Aibo then – or even that perennial annoyance the Furby – where you can feel the buttons and tell the moment they flip from off to on, you’re never quite certain whether stroking Yume Neko will provoke a response.
Instead, you have to simply treat her as a normal cat: give her some attention and wait to see whether movement or sound is forthcoming. The exact nature of what will and won’t be picked up on is equally uncertain; although Sega Toys makes no mention of sound or light sensors, some people were convinced that there was a reaction to them calling out, or moving across the cat’s field of vision.
I expected children to be the primary audience – it is, after all, branded a toy – and while this may be true, many adults expressed interest in buying one. Some had recently lost pets of their own, others lived by themselves and found stroking the cat relaxing. Ironically, even people who normally weren’t “cat people” were curious, usually drawn in by the fact that it’s a robot. Pretty much the only one to disagree with Yume Nemo was my parents’ cat, Toby, who didn’t get close enough to smell that she wasn’t actually real and instead retreated to narrowed-eyed safety under the kitchen table.
Do I recommend Yume Neko Smile? Well, judged on pure everyday usefulness you’ll likely turn to a smartphone, digital camera or mp3 player first, but then Sega Toys aren’t intending their robot cat to slot into any such category. This isn’t – as far as any gadget can be – essential, not by any means, but that being said it would be unfair to say it had no longevity. In my first post about Yume Neko I compared it to a Furby, but in fact they’re at completely opposite ends of the robot scale.
Where the Furby clamours for attention, the cat sits quietly until you choose to play with it, even if that play just involves a careless stroking while you’re watching TV. I’m reminded of a Game Design Mash-Up Challenge from 2005: design a game for your granny, where the creator of cult-success Katamari Damacy proposed a wireless cat controller that encourages your elderly relative to challenge her peers in competitions of first soup-making and then group activities. Yume Neko Smile might not go so far as that right now, but to dismiss it as a mere automaton is to lose sight of a new breed of robot companions. And I’ll gladly donate lap-space to that.
Many, many thanks to CScout Japan for providing me with my Yume Neko Smile, and for being so patient while I showed it around and gathered material for this review. Yume Neko is available from them for $179, including worldwide EMS rapid delivery shipping.
Writing for R3 Media since 2006, Chris Davies is currently executive editor for SlashGear, Android Community and the other network sites. Based in London, UK, he's responsible for SlashGear's editorial decisions and covers all forms of consumer technology. You can follow him on Twitter.