Are you a cat person or a dog person? In the future that question will have a different meaning. When we've eaten all the fish in the sea, when all the cows have foot and mouth, when all the pigs have died of swine flu, we'll turn on Rover and Patch. "Cat or dog?" will be the new "Leg or breast?", and instead of turkey on Christmas day we'll have a German shepherd stuffed with kittens.
But we will always want pets. For it is human nature to forge bonds of mutual respect, affection and companionship with animals, at least the ones too fluffy to eat. In the future, when the phrase "doggy bag" will have a whole new meaning, EyePet could be a big hit.
It's being billed as "the virtual, magical pet in your living room", but a more accurate tagline would be "EyeToy meets Nintendogs". For the cost of a full-price PS3 title you'll get a copy of the game, a PlayStation Eye camera and a "magic card" - a bit of black cardboard small enough to fit inside the box. The EyePet disc and card will also be available separately for those who already own a camera.
On booting up the game you're presented with your pet. They all look basically the same - like what would happen if a monkey had a baby and wasn't sure whether the father was a cat or a mouse. (Now that would be a great episode of Jeremy Kyle.)
Skin tone and eye colour are randomly selected and you can't change them, nor can you alter the basic physical attributes of your pet such as tail length, ear size etc. However, there is a simplistic set of customisation tools you can use to make him or her look unique. (For the purposes of this preview we'll assume it's a "him" for the sake of brevity and simplicity, and because we hate women.)
Customisation mainly involves mucking about with your pet's fur. You can shave his whole body or just part of it, right down to individual hairs. Or you can make his fur longer, giving him a mohican for example. You can choose from a wide range of colours, from basic monkeycatmouse brown to vibrant pinks and purples. There are different patterns to choose from such as spots and stripes. It's a bit like the Play-Doh Mop Top Hair Shop except it doesn't smell of childhood.
There are also around 250 items of clothing with which to dress your pet up. You can put him in hoodies, playsuits, baseball caps and so on. Extra options will be available as downloadable content via an in-game store. There will be some free items such as seasonal costumes, but others will be paid for. Branded clothes could be on offer too as Sony is currently looking for licensing partners. So that's how they can afford to give the camera away for free. But what sort of price tags will be slapped on the clothes?
"The very desirable ones will be paid for, but as with the game, we want it to be affordable for families," says the chap from Sony who is conducting our demo [brilliant journalism right there - Ed]. "We're not talking about charging people large amounts for a small costume. It will be good value for money, that's something we identified very early on."
Once you're happy with your pet's look you can start properly interacting. Adjust the camera so your arm is visible on the screen and you can stroke, tickle and play with him. The pet is aware of your presence within the space - he'll jump if you slide your hand underneath him, for example, or start arching his back and purring when he's stroked. Keep stroking and the pet will roll over so you can tickle his tummy, then eventually go to sleep. To wake him up you clap your hands. It all works believably and consistently, and it's all undeniably cute.
Showing the magic card to the camera brings up a selection of toys to play with. Pick the trampoline and one will appear over the black card, and the pet will start jumping on it. Move the card and the trampoline will follow, and so will your pet. Move too quickly, however, and he'll fall on his hairy backside with a squeak.
Other toys include bowling equipment, tennis rackets, cards for playing Snap and a singing set you can use to teach your pet to copy melodies. Today, though, we only have time to see the bubble machine. It's shaped like a plastic monkey. Virtually pressing a button on the top causes it to spit out big transparent bubbles, which you can then wave around the screen. You can't pop them but the pet can, and he can also jump inside giant bubbles and float around.
"The cool thing about this is we tested it with families, and mums told us they love playing this with their kids before they go to sleep," says the Sony man. "It's so relaxing, unlike many other games which get them excited. While they had the game at home it replaced the bedtime story before the kids went to sleep."
It's just as important to care for your pet as it is to play with him. Pets get dirty so you need to shampoo and wash them as in Nintendogs. There are neat touches to the process such as the condensation that collects on the screen while you're using the shower, and which you can wipe off with your hand. It's also fun to give your pet a blowdry and watch his fur wave around in the hot air.
You can create a garden, plant flowers and trees and collect food for your pet. For our demo Nick produces some food he made earlier - biscuits in the shape of the PlayStation symbols - in a virtual Tupperware container. Flicking the container sends biscuits flying and the pet jumps up to grab them. When he's full, he lets you know by chucking any food you dispense back up into the air. "We didn't want it to be about menu selections and statistics. It's a mini-game, something fun," apparently.
That's also the thinking behind the feature used to analyse the status of your pet. Instead of looking at graphs and symbols you use the magic card to give him an x-ray, bringing up an image of his brain, bones and organs. If he's happy, for example, his heart will appear bright red and will pump away at a jolly pace.
You can then send the x-ray to a fictional institute known as the Pet Centre, and they'll respond with a report the following day. The report will consist of a video of live actors telling you how well you did. The Pet Centre will even award prizes for effective care. "It's all part of this believable experience - the pet is believable in your living room, and so is the institute behind the game," says Mr Sony.
For EyePet's next trick, we're shown how you can teach your pet to draw. The demo man takes a piece of paper and a marker pen and separately sketches the component parts of a simple aeroplane - the wings, the body and the propeller. He writes "ELLIE" on the body. He then uses the magic card to select a material to make the plane out of. There are obvious options like wood, plastic, cardboard, newspaper and plastic, but you can also choose from fantasy materials like fruit.
He holds the paper up to the camera and three exclamation marks appear on-screen to signify the pet recognises the drawing. The pet produces his own sketchbook, sticks a pen in his mouth and starts drawing - specifically, replicating the shapes on the real-life piece of paper. The virtual shapes float upwards, turn 3D and come together to create the plane. It's not quite perfect - the propeller is a little off and "ELLIE" looks more like "FI IF" - but it's instantly recognisable as the plane our human friend just drew. The pet jumps in the cockpit and starts zooming around, controlled by the DualShock. The background changes to blue skies and fluffy clouds appear along with brightly coloured balloons, which the pet starts popping.
You can't just draw anything you like and expect your pet to copy you - he can only draw certain things such as planes, cars, robots, puppets and balloons, and you need to know the component parts required for each design. However, "The designs themselves are completely open," says the Sony chap. "As long as I draw the body, the wings and the propeller... I could have drawn bigger wings, or omitted parts if I'd wanted. I could have just drawn the wings, and the pet would have sat on the wings."
The balloon template offers even more scope for creativity. "The good thing about balloons is that any shape will do. You can draw a heart and that heart will become a balloon, floating round in the air." Time for my signature question: but can you draw a penis? "If you like. The point is, yes, there are preset, loose templates and within those it's really up to players to come up with a design." To illustrate this we're shown a pile of previous demo drawings and shown how the chaps from Wired subverted the car template, turning it into a shopping trolley. Bizarrely, not one person has drawn a nob.
Which means it is the end of days, surely. And soon we will all be snacking on pup scratchings washed down with cat milk as we play with our virtual pets. Or watching our children do so, anyway - EyePet's too cute and kiddy for the kind of gamer who thinks it's not worth playing a shooter unless you get to see what the inside of your enemy's face looks like. There's not a great deal of depth here and there's no challenge; EyePet isn't a game in the traditional sense, more of a 21st century Tamagotchi. But just as kids went mad for those toys back in the day, they're likely to go gaga over this one by the time we're all eating pastry-encased dachshunds instead of sausage rolls.