11 Pet Replacements for the Lonely People In Your Life

11 Pet Replacements for the Lonely People In Your Life

From Tamagotchi to cuddly robot dogs, there's an animal out there for everyone to love.

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A photo of the Tamagotchi Pix
If you know someone in your life who’s been yearning for something to love, you’d be surprised to see how much comfort the Tamagotchi can offer.
Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo

‘Tis the season for being reminded of how utterly alone we are. Why not fill that gaping hole with a digital pet? Whether it’s a keychain device with a virtual character to take care of or a stuffed animal that mews and purrs like a cat, you’d be surprised at the amount of comfort either of those can bring a person on their darkest of daylight saving days.

I speak from experience as Gizmodo’s resident virtual pet expert, a title that I just gave myself and hope my editor will accept. (Ed. note: Accepted. -CM) While a virtual/digital pet isn’t a complete replacement for a warm-blooded animal, it’s much easier to clean up after. And in many cases, you can take out the battery when life gets too busy to care for them.

Here are some picks for the best virtual pets available to buy, provided you have the emotional bandwidth to care for them. We’ve included everything from the many Tamagotchi (many, many Tamagotchi), along with a lifelike stuffed pet you can buy at the drugstore to help ease your fears of sleeping alone.

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Joy For All Lifelike Robotic Pets

Joy For All Lifelike Robotic Pets

A photo of a stuffed cat
Get a purring and cuddling feline without all the litter scattered around the house.
Image: Joy For All

I was first introduced to the Joy For All stuffed animal companions through the “elderly care” section at my local drugstore. I was looking for an electric heating pad, but then I stumbled upon this and was almost tempted to bring one home to try it out. The box was compelling.

I fell for the Joy For All tabby cat, but there are dog variants, too. You can brush, pet, and cuddle the stuffed animal to your heart’s content. When you’re not interacting with it, it sleeps.

Both dogs and cats have realistic fur, and each animal responds depending on where you touch it. For instance, if you opt for the cat, it will lean in toward your hand when you start to pet its cheek, the way a real cat would. If you keep petting it, it will eventually roll itself on its back and ask you to pet its belly—the same way an actual feline would indicate that they’ve grown to trust you fully.

The Joy For All companion pets start at around $130, depending on the retailer. Each of the pets takes four 1.5V C Alkaline batteries to power up, so make sure to grab a bundle of these hard-to-buy batteries for the lucky recipient of this gift.

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Tombot Puppy

Tombot Puppy

A photo of the tombot puppy
The Tombot Puppy is for anywho who has ever wanted a Labrador Muppet as their pet.
Screenshot: Tombot / YouTube

Need a virtual pet that gets a little more interactive than simply purring and whirring? A company called Tombot launched a companion dog that behaves and responds like a real one. Its name is Puppy, and it wags its tail, opens and closes its mouth, and turns its head as if it can’t believe what you just said. Tombot even worked with folks from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to help make the company’s robo-dog more affable. If you’ve ever squeed over a muppet’s cute mannerisms, Tombot might be your thing.

The Tombot Puppy doesn’t come cheap, though. It usually costs $500 to reserve, though the company has discounted it to $450 for new folks who want to get on the waitlist.

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Sony Aibo ERS-1000

Sony Aibo ERS-1000

A photo of the Sony Aibo
Aibo wants to love you and then upload that love into Sony’s cloud-based AI servers.
Photo: Alex Cranz / Gizmodo

There is too much to say about Aibo, Sony’s robot dog. The name stands for Artificial Intelligence Robot, and because of its learn-as-it-goes programming, it is one of the most realistic virtual pets out there. Aibo has managed to capture many hearts since its debut in 1999, spanning generations. If you’re unfamiliar with Aibo, check out this New York Times short documentary on the original Aibo’s devoted following.

In 2018, Sony released the fifth-generation Aibo, which is the model you can buy now. It costs a whopping $2,900, and that’s because it’s crammed with cameras and sensors. Just Aibo’s head contains an image-recognition camera in its nose, a time-of-flight sensor in its mouth to measure the proximity of nearby objects, and touch sensors around its forehead to detect when you’re petting it. It also stores its memories in Sony’s cloud-powered AI engine, which helps inspire its expressive face. And when it needs to charge, it’ll walk itself over to its charging station, just like a robot vacuum. The only downside to adopting this pet—besides its massive price tag—is that it’s not geared for use outside, nor does it jump.

If you’re planning to give this to a tinkerer, you might also inspire them with Aibo’s developer portal, which offers a web-based API that allows you to program the robot dog to do things like grabbing a piece of tissue when you sneeze.

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Vector Home Robot

Vector Home Robot

A photo of a robot playing Blackjack
Play Blackjack with the Vector Home Robot.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski / Gizmodo

How about a virtual pet that’s also a robot that can take commands? Anki’s follow-up bot to the Cozmo desk toy is the Vector, a literal robot on wheels that follows you around like a robot vacuum with a plan. It runs on a Snapdragon processor and has a 120-degree HD camera to look around, plus a handful of microphones to hear you, an infrared laser scanner to map the room, and a six-axis inertial measurement unit to navigate the perilous world we brought it into.

The Vector is capable of doing a few things. It’s charming and expressive, but it also relies on you to command it, akin to a smart display. You can say, “Hey Vector” to snap photos, set a timer, and check the weather forecast. It can also fist bump you and play a round of blackjack. Or you can have Vector dance along to some tunes.

Anki shut down since launching this robot, but Digital Dream Labs took over shortly after. It’s since introduced the Vector Escape Pod, which lets the Vector robot function independently of the cloud service the robot uses so that you still get voice commands without the internet. Tinkerers might also love the idea of programming a Raspberry Pi to host the Vector on a home server.

The Vector was $250 when it launched in 2018. But now you’ll find listings where it starts around $600. There is a waitlist for the next potential batch release, but preorders are closed for the so-called Vector 2.0. The Escape Pod and other open-source development kits range between $97 and $197.

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Hungry Bunny

Hungry Bunny

A photo of the bunny eliminating its paper waste
The Hungry Bunny will alert you when it needs to express its paper waste. Is this a glorified paper shredder?
Screenshot: Zoomer

I found this toy while looking up affordable alternatives to Sony’s Aibo. Zoomer is a brand from Spinmaster that makes the $100 Playful Pup, which barks and rolls around the floor like Aibo. But it’s the $30-$40 Hungry Bunny that eats and poops paper food that caught my eye instead.

The Hungry Bunnies are adorable, yet ridiculous. Like real rabbits, they just lay around and eat what you put into their mouths. You can “make” food for the bunny by using the included stencil to draw and cut out your own creations. The varying types of food include—what else?—paper carrots, paper popsicles, and paper ice cream. After the bunny eats, listen for the “magical” sound of the plastic toy defecating the paper it just shredded to bits with its tiny teeth. It’s the circle of life!

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Ami-chan

Ami-chan

A photo of Grammy holding Ami-Chan
Ami-chan is too cute for Grammy to pass up.
Image: Takara Tomy

Takara Tomy, the Japanese toymaker behind famous franchises such as the original Transformers, offers the perfect toy for those hoping to gift something a little more human-like to interact with. The cartoony Ami-chan isn’t quite lifelike in its looks or its movements, but it does talk. Ami-chan has a vocabulary of around 1,600 Japanese words. And it learns as it goes, because how else would it learn the name of the gift recipient?

Ami-chan can also sing 40 different songs and nursery rhymes, and even offers a bit of interactive brain training through tongue twisters. However, this kind of interaction isn’t cheap: Ami-chan will set you back about $250 plus shipping from Japan. And it requires four C-size alkaline batteries to function—again, please bundle your gifts with batteries this year so that I can stop nagging you to do the right thing.

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Boston Dynamics Spot

Boston Dynamics Spot

A photo of the Boston Dynamics Dog
See Spot jump. It’s so uncanny, you’ll be glad it’s not so easy to buy.
Screenshot: Boston Dynamics / YouTube

I couldn’t do a guide on robotic pets without including Boston Dynamics’ robotic monstrosity. Spot is more than a mere pet, however. It could be easily construed as artillery, which is why it’s still not technically available to just anyone. If it’s companionship you want, that’s what Sony’s Aibo is for.

The Spot Explorer Development kit remains geared toward the industrial sector and will cost you upwards of $74,500 if you want one, though you can buy them in bulk if you’re adopting them as gifts for your business...?

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Original Tamagotchi

Original Tamagotchi

A photo of the original Tamagotchi
The original Tamagotchi has a new pink glitter shell.
Image: Bandai

If you are at all familiar with my work, you might have figured this would eventually venture into Tamagotchi territory.

This time, I’m talking about the regular old Tamagotchi made new again. Bandai re-releases its classic Tamagotchi nearly every year around this time with a batch of new colorways to collect. This latest round includes pink glitter and ‘90s geometric shapes. There are over 30 styles currently. They each cost between $15 and $20 and are pretty easy to find at most big-box retailers.

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Tamagotchi Pix

Tamagotchi Pix

A photo of a person holding the Tamagotchi Pix
The Tamagotchi PIx costs more than the original Tamagotchi, but it’s super involved.
Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo

The Tamagotchi Pix is still a worthy pick, even if it eats through AA batteries (always bundle your gifts with batteries!). At $60, it’s pricier than the original Tamagotchi, but it’s also way more involved. It has a camera for snapping pics with your Tama in tow, and since its launch, Bandai added missions at its site that you can unlock with its built-in QR code scanner.

The only bummer to this virtual companion is that you can’t transfer any of the photos after the fact. But there is a thriving community of Tamagotchi enthusiasts concurrently playing the game who post QR codes online. If you’ve got a friend into that kind of gameplay, the Tamagotchi Pix can make for a fun distraction from the everyday doldrums.

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Star Wars R2-D2 Tamagotchi

Star Wars R2-D2 Tamagotchi

A photo of R2D2 Tama
The R2-D2 Tamagotchi is for the ultimate Star Wars fan in your life.
Image: Bandai

The $20 Star Wars R2-D2 Tamagotchi is one of the first not to feature characters from the original virtual pet game. Unlike some of its other collaborations, this tiny electronic keychain is tailor-made for the diehard Star Wars fan. In addition to tasking you with the job of caring for Artoo, it has cameos from notable characters including Chewbacca, General Grievous, and Boba Fett.

You can train Artoo to learn 19 different skills, and there are nine mini-games in total to play. But if you neglect him for too long, the Jawas will take him away for scrap. It’s all as cute and fan service-y as it sounds.

There are several sizes of Tamagotchi. The R2-D2 one falls within the “nano” size, which means it’s tiny, and the screen is only slightly bigger than a dime. It uses Tamagotchi’s signature three-button system and takes LR44 batteries. (Again, I urge you to provide your gift recipient with extra batteries.)

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Digimon Original

Digimon Original

A photo of the different Digimon toys
Digimon comes in all sorts of colors and patterns, but the core gameplay remains the same across the board.
Image: Bandai

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Digimon, which is a franchise also owned by Bandai, as part of this pet gift guide. Digimon has been around as long as the original Tamagotchi. Back in the day, folks pegged it as the “boy” version of Bandai’s virtual pet, but the good news is that Bandai appears to have evolved with the times and the company has re-launched the original in all sorts of colors and patterns.

If you’re into games like Pokémon, which came into the world around the same time as this franchise, a $20 Digimon might be it for you. Like Tamagotchi, your task is to raise your Digimon so that they might be strong enough to compete against others. Be sure to get two of these if you’re buying one for a friend.

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