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In one of the most ambitious product launches in its history, Fisher-Price is taking the wraps off "Rocket the Wonder Dog," a high-tech pet it hopes will be child's best friend this holiday season.

The local toymaker was slated to debut the robotic canine at an "out of this world" event this morning at New York's Mars 2112, where the microchip-loaded pooch was to be welcomed to Earth by former Astronaut Buzz Aldrin. The Mattel subsidiary teased the event with a quarter-page ad in USA Today Monday which read "Warning: Rocket to hit New York City tomorrow . . . Bring your kids."

The cyber pooch -- invented by a team of at the toymaker's East Aurora's headquarters -- is also slated to make an appearance this evening on CNN's Digital Jam program.

Neil Friedman, president of Fisher-Price Brands, admits the big-time publicity is a little unusual for the veteran maker of toys and products for the infant to pre-K crowd. But the wide-eyed doggie from another planet is deserving of the elaborate send-off, according to the Fisher-Price chief.

"This is just a great, great toy," Friedman said. "Everybody who has seen the Rocket prototype absolutely loves it. His face is so expressive and his actions are very dog-like."

Rocket, a blue and silver-coated pup with a $100 price tag, responds to the sound of his owner's voice with a variety of actions, sounds and facial expressions. He walks, pants, barks, whimpers, scratches fleas, chews a bone, begs for attention and even lifts a rear leg in response to his master's voice, or lack of attention.

Designed for kids as young as age 3, it can be programmed for more advanced play for use by older children.

Among those offering early praise for Rocket is Jim Silver, editor of The Toy Book, a New York City-based toy industry publication. Silver has put the techno pup, which relies on sophisticated voice recognition technology to come alive, on his list of the best high-tech toys for Christmas 2000.

"Fisher-Price's Rocket is one of our five hot picks for tech toys and is the most visually expressive of the robotic dogs on the market this holiday season," Silver said. "Rocket has incredible
technology and features some of the most unique quality like expressive eyes and remarkable realistic behavior."

That said, Rocket isn't the only chipped-up doggie to catch Silver's eye. His annual toy wishes list of top toy picks in several categories also includes Tiger Electronics' palm-sized Super Poo-Chi.

Bearing a strong resemblance to 1998's big hit, Furby, Poo-Chi sings songs, plays games and interacts with other Poo-Chis.

"There's a lot of dogs out there this year, but Rocket and Poo-Chi are the ones we like the best. Rocket costs about $100 and does a ton of tricks, Poo-Chi is $30 less and isn't nearly as advanced. Either way, you're going to get what you pay for," Silver added.

Depending on how much they are willing to spend, consumers will be able to choose from a litter of high-tech pups this holiday season. Sony has sold some 10,000 of its extremely limited-run AIBO, whose $2,500 price tag hasn't put a damper on demand by high-end buyers.

And Tiger is betting the robotic dog market is so hot that it's working on no less than three doggie products. In addition to Poo-Chi, it expects to offer kennel mate iCybie ($130) and Spike ($75).

Other dogged competitors are Teckno ($35) and Me and My Shadow ($60).

Christopher Byrne, editor of The Toy Report, is another toy industry observer who sees a retail dogfight between Rocket and Poo-Chi.

"They are different dogs for different age groups and different pocketbooks," Byrne said.

For parents who can afford the more expensive Fisher-Price dog, Byrne predicts they'll find it money well-spent.

"It's so life-like; it has so much heart," he said.

He also liked the voice recognition feature which allows little kids to control their own pet.

"At that age it's so important for kids to have things of their own. When they figure out that Rocket only responds to the sound of their voice, they'll feel very empowered," Byrne added.

Friedman agrees that not every parent will want to spend $100 on a robotic toy for a small child. The Fisher-Price chief, whose resume includes development of the super-hit toy Tickle Me Elmo, said historically, the big hit toys have been priced at less than $50.

"The reason Rocket can do the things he does is the technology we've built into him, which brings the price up. While we'd like to sell as many as we can, our first priority was to make the very best robotic dog available," he said.

Rocket, who will hit toy store shelves by the end of the month, has also stolen the hearts of his design team. Lisa Mancuso, vice president of marketing, said during the long road from concept to marketplace, the team developed a bad case of "puppy love."

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