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Old June 2nd, 2002, 10:37 AM
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Robofish Act Like Reel Thing

Robofish Act Like Reel Thing
By Leander Kahney

Bringing a dog to work is passť in Silicon Valley, where yapping mutts have been replaced by things that don't pee on the carpet or aggravate co-workers' allergies -- desktop aquariums.

But the tech-savvy area is once again behind companies in Japan, which are replacing short-living fish with ones that can be kept from going belly up by adding batteries.

Introduced in November, Japanese toy giant Takara Co.'s Aquaroid line is the latest addition to the Japanese craze for robot pets.

The Aquaroid line features fish, jellyfish, turtles and an ammonite.

"They're hypnotic to look at," said Paul Chavez, who imports the jellyfish for his RoboToys store in Los Angeles. "They're very soothing."

About the size of a large grapefruit, the robot jellyfish gently moves up and down its tank when the aquarium lights are turned on. Thanks to sensors, it doesn't touch the sides.

Customers of Chavez express "astonishment" at the sight of one of the jellyfish moving around in its tank, he said. "They say 'they're beautiful, they're great, they're fantastic, they're pretty.'"

Powered by penlight batteries, the plastic critters cost 5,000 yen (US $40). They 'swim 'gently around the aquarium until they run into the side wall or another creature, when a nose-mounted sensor turns them around and they gently move off in the other direction.

Takara, the third-largest toy maker in Japan, expects the Aquaroids to be a big hit. The company estimates it will sell more than 100,000 units this year of its Aquaroid Tower, a foot-high lava lamp-like aquarium that houses a jellyfish.

Costing 6,000 yen (US $50), the jellyfish move by magnets and are sound-sensitive, shimmying and increasing their pace in response to sound or music.

Users say watching the jellyfish can be as hypnotic as staring at the real things.

"Observing the gentle rhythms of the jellyfish has a 'healing' effect," Terumi Endo, a spokeswoman for the toymaker, told the London Times. "Research shows it is good for soothing nerves and alleviating stress."

According to The Times, the jellyfish was a big hit with stressed-out workers who "spend hours staring into the glass tank that houses the creature."

But attempts to bring a solar-powered model to the United States and Europe have foundered.

U.S. toy giant Tiger Electronics, which markets Robo-Chi cats and dogs, was negotiating with Takara to sell a mass-market version of the jellyfish on these shores.

The company showed a solar-powered "prototype" at the New York Toy Fair in February, to great acclaim, and a summer debut was penciled in.

But to make it affordable to more consumers, the jellyfish needed to be battery-, not solar-powered.

Tiger also discovered that contrary to expectations, the robot fish are quite fussy about their aquatic environment. The tank requires careful filtering and sterilization to prevent algae and other waterborne gunk from gumming up the jellyfish's works.

And because water's specific gravity (buoyancy properties) changes with heat, the tank's temperature has to be carefully regulated to keep the fish floating.

"Everything had to be just right for it to work properly," said Tiger spokeswoman Lana Simon. "There were too many factors. It became too hard for us to make it work properly and we decided not to move forward."

"It's supposed to be a fish tank without all the fuss," she added. "But when it came down to it, there was too much fuss."

However, lovers of mechanical marine life can get their hands on less sophisticated versions at a local fast food restaurant. McDonald's is giving away wind-up versions of the fish and jellyfish with every Happy Meal.
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