The Art of Creating Subjective Reality : An Analysis of Japanese Digital Pets (part)

Machiko Kusahara

(Presentation at ALIFE VII, Portland, 2000, later published on LEONARDO, vol. 34, No.4, pp. 299-302, 2001)


A variety of digital pets can be found in Japan, from virtual pets on palm-top game screens to physical entertainment robots.
They are successful because they succeeded in promoting a sense of reality in users' minds. While visual reality is a familiar element of realism, a subjective sense of reality can also prove effective. By designing interaction in a mode that takes users' psychology into account, such a sense of reality can be enhanced, especially when a user perceives an independent personality in his/her digital pet.
Japanese traditional culture, which allows treating animals on an equal basis with human beings, is behind this psychology.

Artificial life (A-Life) has become widely embraced in Japanese digigtal entertainment. After the great success of Tamagotchi, a variety of virtual pets "living" on computer-game platforms and personal computers have been developed. They have apparently "evolved" from the simple dot images of Tamagotchi(1) or the original Pokemon (2) generation to realistically rendered and animated 3D images such as that of "Seaman", from Sega.(3) The evolution has recently progressed by a great leap. Now some of these digital pets even have physical bodies! Sony's AIBO (fig, 1) and other robot pets that followed its success can be regarded as the materialization (or "incarnation," so to speak) of virtual pets, rather than as the animal version of robots we have known from Karel Capek's play R.U.R. or the film "Metropolis" or industrial robots of today. The basic concept of both virtual pets and pet robots is the offer of entertaining communication with the users, as well with their families and friends. Even though virtual pets and pet robots are quite different physical entities, they can both be discussed as digital pets.

An artificial pet should fail to engage adults if it cannot evoke a certain sense of reality in the user, though it may still welcomed by kids, as in case of the Furby. In Japan, however, virtual-pet products such as PostPet(4)(Fig.2) or Dokodemo Issyo (5) became smash hits among those over age 20. AIBO, which is obviously too expensive for kids, is accepted by normal adults as an artificial pet. Why do we find such a variety of digital pets in Japan, and why do people react to them so positively?

We do not yet have the technology to create a realistic-looking digital or robot pet that moves perfectly naturally and demonstrates convincing interaction and autonomy. The overall sense of the reality of digital pets is determined by two different elements. One is the technical achievement of the developer. The other is a psychological or emotional phenomenon that occurs in each user's mind. This sense of reality is personal, but it is also bound to the user's cultural background. It fills in the incomplete sense of reality provided by the techinical achievement. I call it "subjective reality". The above mentioned Japanese products are designed to make the best use of subjective reality.
In this presentation, the role of "subjective reality" in achieving the sense of the reality of digital pets will be examined, and recently popular Japanese digital pets and their features will be discussed. The cultural background of the users' attitude toward digital pets will be also analyzed.