With bionic mouse, robots fulfill ultimate destiny: Playthings for cats

Sure it's gimmicky (so was the Roomba when it debuted) but it just might be the next home robotics category to take off.

Dogs are so in tune with the human life that one camp of scientists believes they very well may have domesticated themselves. Cats, on the other hand? Still a little on the fence about the current detente. Cats are hunters at heart. And hunters gotta hunt.

Fortunately, technology has the answer. Enter the culmination of years of engineering education, a concurrence of previously mind-boggling sensor advances, and the latest AI algorithms: A robotic mouse trained to zip around your home eluding Tigger.

Also: Is technology driving your pet insane? CNET

Called Mousr, the robot is the brainchild of startup Petronics and grew out of a successful Kickstarter project launched by three PhD chums (and cat lovers) who met at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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Since then the startup has successfully delivered $200K in preorders and is heading to Amazon this month with a nice head of steam. Equipped with time of flight sensors and configured for autonomous and remote-control modes, this isn't your old tweety bird on a string.

The organic rise of a home robotics company bootstrapped by three engineers stands out in a category now dominated by robotics firms with big funding (Jibo has raised over $70 million) and increasingly crammed with legacy brands like LG, which are trying to muscle in on the Amazon- and Google-led wave of home automation.

But Petronics' early success shouldn't be surprising. The company is succeeding by avoiding a trap that most home robotics companies have blundered into with staggering consistency: Revolutionary hardware will never make a good product if it doesn't solve a specific problem for a defined customer base.

The market is now jammed with home robots that amount to little more than Amazon Echoes on wheels. They're stunning pieces of engineering, all, but nobody seems to want them. That's probably because the Echo does fine without the wheels. It's also cheap. Kuri, a pioneering home robot, costs about $700. At least it did before the project folded.

Also: Meet Amazon's new Echo devices and Alexa hardware: Prices, features, release dates

By focusing on a specific and unaddressed problem with a huge potential customer base (there are 36 million cat households in the U.S.), Petronics is plotting a different course, following the path cut by the only trailblazing home robotics company with a real legacy of market success: iRobot.

Mousr is actually quite reminiscent of the Roomba. Like the first robot vac, Mousr seems like a novelty. But like iRobot, Petronics scored early victories and has won over the people who understand the category they're competing in.

Also: Meet Loomo, Segway's personal mobile robot TechRepublic

Earlier this year, Mousr took home the trophy for best new product in the cat category at the Global Pet Expo.

The price is also right. Mousr retails for $149. That's not cheap for a pet toy, but it's in the ballpark of a price a certain kind of cat owner will pay.

In the internet age, cats have become something of a shibboleth for the collision of our rampant pursuit of better technology and the more mundane tastes of our day-to-day. It's fitting, then, that a robotic mouse meant to lure your cat endlessly around a room seems primed to be one of the next big home robots, potentially succeeding where many others with much deeper pockets have failed.

In the end it's about solving problems. And in these taxing times we're all a little hard up for more goofy cat antics.

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