MarsCat robot is more project than pet

The Aibo-inspired open source catbot aims to bring down the cost of a hackable pet robot, but needs work to evolve into a true companion.

There's a growing fear that artificial intelligence combined with robotics will displace the value of humans in many contexts. But could these trends also apply to our traditional four-legged canine and feline companions? After its splash at CES 2020, I had an opportunity to get up close this week with two prototypes of the MarsCat robot developed by Elephant Robotics. The mechanical meower took one small step forward for robotkind... and promptly tipped over. That would have been the low point had another of the litter not also fallen over later in the demonstration, with its leg breaking off in the process.

Even when the robots were not showing off their far-from-feline agility, they emitted loud gear noises and moved as you might expect a robot cat to move. Fluffy's role in society is safe for now. But not necessarily indefinitely.

Built on the Raspberry Pi platform and launched on Kickstarter, the MarsCat is the pet project of Joey Song, who has long been a fan of Sony's Aibo robotic dog but dismayed at its high price. (Song said he picked a used one up for $2,000 a few years ago.) With Mars Cat, Song says he's hoping to bring down the price of such a pet (the launch price is $699) while also speeding up the pace of innovation. At launch, the MarsCat will support detecting brightness and moving objects, attributes that Aibo cannot sense.

Still, MarsCat clearly takes visual inspiration from Aibo in that its body is smooth plastic as opposed to Hasbro's FurReal toy pets. He notes that, when they tried out fur, it made the catbots scarier. For now, it's practically cuddly compared to Nybble, another open-source feline bot that raised over $300,000 on Indiegogo last year. Song says that the company is considering offering fur as an add-on accessory beyond the four colors offered at launch and also offers that getting the material for paws is less challenging. Besides, he says, one of the project's top goals is to make every cat unique. Its personality is designed to evolve in response to how it is treated and its memories can even be transplanted into a new body.

While the prototypes exhibited had their share of weak points and weaker joints, there were some encouraging parts of the demonstration. The catbots had expressive LCD eyes and could respond to petting both atop their heads and under their chins. Pressing down on both puts the cat into standby. The models got into realistic sitting and pouncing positions  and "kneaded." And after a number of tries, one recognized a toy and made a lazy swipe at it. One advantage of making a robotic cat versus a dog when it comes to biological comparisons is that MarsCat's operating time is about three to four hours, which Song points out is closer to the amount of time that real cats are active. MarsCat will ship with a charging pad.

At some point, the category may mature where these robots can offer more emotional support to those who would like a real dog or cat but can't have one for reasons ranging from lack of mobility to allergies. MarsCat may be far less expensive than Sony's pioneering robopet, but it is still largely aimed at enthusiasts and tinkerers. Its source code will be available as open source and the cat can be programmed via Python and, despite its lack of claws, Scratch.

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