Best Cat Toys 2018: An A.I. Powered Robot Mouse Caters to Kitty's Bloodlust
Who would’ve thought that the most sophisticated cat toy imaginable would also be the one that happens to trigger a cat’s most ruthless and disturbing behavior?
That’s what you get from Mousr, a super-smart cat toy from Petronics that has a time-of-flight sensor, a real-time operating system in a custom-built microcontroller, and A.I. programming all working on concert to convince your cat that it’s a mouse and not a tiny robot. Mousr can map its surroundings — and it even initiates a struggle protocol when it feels trapped by its predator. My cats absolutely love the struggle part.
Earlier this week, Inverse spoke with Mousr co-founders Michael Friedman and Dave Cohen about what makes the world’s smartest cat toy so darn smart. Friedman explained that Mousr “balances the needs of cat and human” by sating a feline’s desire to hunt while also creating a fun, easy experience for the human.
Not only do Friedman and Cohen have decades of experience as cat owners themselves — currently Friedman has four and Cohen has two — but they’ve consulted with various specialists and academics to analyze cat behavior. In our conversation, Friedman asked about the breed of my own cats (more on them later) because their research has shown that “predictable behavior patterns exist within breeds.” Some cats prefer specific modes of play, and others prefer certain textures of tail attachments. Research suggests these preferences are consistent in similar breeds, perhaps a fascinating indication that, least for cats, behavior might be determined more by nature than by nurture.
How to Entertain Your Cat
Us humans don’t think about cat psychology all that often, but it’s fairly straightforward.
“The biggest thing is that a cat has to be comfortable in their home,” Friedman explained. “Then the biggest problem becomes boredom. The ability for them to hunt for their food — or rather working for something and getting a reward — is important for them.”
In other words, cats thrive, both physiologically and psychologically, when they have to work for their food. Perhaps that’s why so many of them knock dishes off counters or meow in the faces of their sleeping humans. Such behaviors supplant traditional hunting as the “work” they inherently want to do for their food.
Indulging this instinct is much easier said than done. If an object like Mousr is too big or too heavy, or its innards are too sensitive to force, then a cat either won’t approach it at all or they’ll wind up disabling it rather quickly. Mousr’s earlier iterations that came equipped with cameras were scrapped for this very reason.
“A lot of automatic or autonomous toys eventually just make cats bored by doing the same exact thing over and over again,” Cohen said. “But Mousr — and real mice — will react to a cat.” Unlike many comparable devices that simply simulate a motion on repeat, Mousr uses onboard artificial intelligence to navigate the physical space around it.
Not only is the holistic, cat-lover mentality applied to Mousr, but 9 out of the 10 people involved with Mousr have either an MS or a Ph.D in electrical engineering. The team notably received a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study indoor navigation in robotics.
“That’s exploring how robots move around and interact in homes with children, humans, and pets,” Friedman explained.
“It’s the first-ever NSF-funded cat toy!” Cohen joked.
So How Does Mousr Work for the Humans?
An app syncs up with the individual Mousr, allowing the human to connect directly to the unit. Currently, Auto Play modes include Open Wander, Wall Hugger, and Stationary. Depending on certain behavior patterns, some cats might enjoy one form over another.
Generally speaking, the Mousr is very adept at navigating even my tight Brooklyn apartment. It constantly whirls around and whips the tail up and down. (The tail is also how it flips back over if it does get whacked upside-down.) But in the event that it does roll directly under a couch or other piece of furniture, it’s very easy in the app to shift out of Auto Play and into Remote Control (RC).
“When we were designing the RC experience,” Cohen explained, “we always wanted to think of it like you were playing a video game with your cat.” The wheel-based Remote Control interface on the Mousr app reminded me of how James Bond drives his car with his phone, except I’m doing it with a cat toy. Other buttons prompt the Mousr to wiggle its tail, turn around, or zip forward.
There’s also an in-app button that links to directly to Mousr’s web store or to some tutorials, troubleshooting, and tips.
Mousr has a docking station that you might as well call its mini garage, and it’s charged by the ubiquitous micro USB cable. It’s the same wire that charges my PlayStation 4 controllers and my portable phone charger, making it easy.
The Mousr Test Subjects
Mousr seemed more than up-to-the-task at engaging with not one cat but two, both of whom are pretty different. My wife and I have a black cat named Shade that’s spent her life indoors and as a result is a fairly sedentary, chubby feline. She loves hard food, goes crazy for lasers, and is very vocal. Our other cat Bleu was a young mother under a year old when she wandered out of the woods of rural Rhode Island with her litter. We adopted her from some lady off of Craigslist. Bleu is lean, quiet, and really intense. She will fight anybody for soft cat food and is ruthlessly efficient at catching any toy dangled in her direction.
How did they fair with the Mousr?
“Multicat households are really interesting,” Friedman said to me in our conversation. “Every time you add a cat it makes it interesting because they form their own hierarchy.” This proved 100 percent true in my home, where Shade sat back and watched the action unfold while Bleu took point on harassing the Mousr. If it ever stayed still for long enough, Shade would slowly approach and then get totally startled when it moved again. But if Bleu was asleep in the other room, Shade would be much more adventurous with it.
Here’s the hilarious moment Bleu went ballistic and abducted the Mousr and dragged it into the other room:
For the most part, the cats particularly loved to watch the Mousr tool around from afar, but depending on how spunky they were feeling, sometimes Bleu would grapple with it for extended periods of time.
Here’s one session in which Bleu activated the struggle protocol numerous times, and each time that happened it only fueled her bloodlust:
What I’ve found truly remarkable about bringing the Mousr into my home is that in the week or so since I’ve used to play with my cats daily, each of their moods has seemingly improved. Bleu typically spends her days listless, scowling at us from her perch on the windowsill bed, only sitting with us during certain times of the day.
But since she began playing with Mousr and flexing her hunter muscles, her mood’s seen a remarkable improvement. If only we could get Shade to be more active with it, then maybe she’ll lose those 3 pounds the vet has been suggesting we get her to lose for years.
Mousr is currently running in its beta at a price of $149, and Petronics is aiming for a full launch in October.