The invention of cat litter in the 1940s brought the cat species into countless family homes. A huge global market has since grown around the hundreds of millions of cats and dogs that humans keep as pets. And like it has with other sectors, AI is opening up possibilities for new and innovative products across the pet industry.
At last week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2019) in Las Vegas, Synced visited pet tech booths to explore the current state and future directions of AI powered tech and smart offerings aimed at our furry companions. We found smart pet technologies can generally be divided into six categories: Tracking, Monitoring, Playing, Feeding, Toilets, and Bathing.
The popular new movie “A Dog’s Way Home” tells the story of a lost dog finding its way home, a tale that touches human heartstrings. Lost pets are however a nightmare for pet owners, and this has led to a proliferation of collar-based GPS tracking devices which make it possible to track a pet’s location in real time.
Tractive is one of the most popular companies providing GPS tracking products for pets. Their compact and 100 percent waterproof devices allow not only live tracking of a dog or cat, but also include features such as an integrated light (to make the pet more visible in the dark), and a “virtual fence” setting (to notify humans if their pet leaves a defined geographical area). Tractive’s GPS devices use a cellular network to transmit data, and operate as a subscription service.
A similar product that does not require a subscription is Maven PT from CargoSense, which was specifically designed and developed to monitor pets such as horses and other show animals when they are travelling as cargo. Maven PT transmits the animal’s location and temperature information during a trip to increase animal safety and provide owners with peace of mind.
There are also monitoring products from companies such as Wagz and Sure Petcare which provide Fitbit-like functions. These can send pet owners specific information such as daily totals for calories burned or hours active/sleeping. Sure Petcare’s Animo can also alert owners if it detects a dog barking, scratching or shaking in an unusual manner.
Tracking products such as Fitbark and Whistle have been presented at previous CES, and there were only minor tech updates in this product category at CES 2019.
Many pet owners want to monitor their pets at home, especially when they are away at work, and a number of dedicated smart camera systems have been developed for this purpose. At CES, Petcube unveiled their second generation products, which include a smart camera and allow users to remotely dispense a treat for their pets (Petcube Bites 2), or play with them using a built-in laser pointer (Petcube Play 2). Both products are equipped with 1080p video, 4x digital zoom, night vision, and two-way audio. The most obvious change in the company’s second-generation products is that they are now equipped with Amazon Alexa, allowing users to access Alexa skills directly via Petcube.
Enhanced by AI technologies, Petcube’s latest products can recognize animals’ barking and meowing to tell the difference between dogs, cats, and people. The systems also learn to understand a pet’s normal sounds and behavior as a baseline, which allows them to detect abnormal behavior which could require attention.
If you prefer a product that can move around the house with your pet, the wheeled VAVA Mobile Pet Cam can monitor and engage cats and dogs thanks to its 360° mobility on most household floor surfaces.
If you simply want a smart toy to play with your cats, there’s Mousr by Petronics. The dynamic mouse toy scurries about waving its motorized tail. Two sensors at the front of the toy and AI algorithms help it automatically sense, entice, and react to a cat. A Petronics rep explained that Mousr knows “when it is caught, when it is stuck, and when playtime is over.” The app includes pre-programmed games and also allows users to take control of the device themselves.
Meanwhile, for fat cats (or those who identify as hamsters), there’s Korean company PetDing’s new “Little Cat” smart treadmill. The wheel has a programmable LED strip on its inside track which simulates a laser pointer target for the cat to chase. The fully networked machine can weigh the cat, track its activity numbers (distance, number of laps, calories burned), and even vary the LED patterns to stimulate the will to exercise. This device is definitely not for every cat — and its US$1800 price tag will probably also keep many consumers away as well.
One of the main purposes for smart feeders is to ensure the right food gets to the right mouth. If there is a cat, dog, and baby in the household, a smart feeder recognizes the correct one to feed while keeping vittles away from the others.
Mookkie is one of the most unique of the many products in this category. The smart food bowl is equipped with a camera that recognizes cats by their faces. Users simply snap and upload a photo of their cat, and Mookie will then only open the food dispenser when it detects that particular cat. The camera can also be used to send notifications and short videos when the cat is eating. Mookkie is the brainchild of Volta.ai, a startup that provides visual cognitive skills for AI products.
Mookkie will be released this September at US$189. A cheaper selective feeding solution from Sure Petcare uses common microchips or collar tags to distinguish pets and open the food dispenser appropriately.
Relieving oneself when required is a top priority for all animals, and failure to address the need can have messy and unpleasant consequences. Not surprisingly smart toilets including self-cleaning litter boxes were the leading pet tech category at CES 2019.
Industry leader Litter-Robot brought their third generation smart toilet to the show. Litter-Robot III Connect is now fully networked, and so its settings can now be tweaked directly from a smartphone. The app monitors waste level and can notify users for example when the waste drawer needs to be emptied. The program can also learn a cat’s regular usage patterns and send an alert if abnormal conditions are detected.
LavvieBot by Purrsong is a new entrant in this market, offering similar functions as the litter-robot but with a simple modern design, smaller form factor, and an easier litter-refilling process.
Petato’s Footloose is a litter box challenger that uses cat recognition, motion detection, and waste level visualization. The machine distinguishes cats based on their weight and activity patterns and tracks their health conditions independently. Measurements include body weight, waste amount, and frequency and duration of litter box usage. Petato says Footloose can leverage this data for example to identify “increased attempts to urinate with small volumes which is barely noticeable by humans but can be a serious sign of urinary problems.”
iPetoi meanwhile has raised the bar with regard to pets’ stool and urine analysis. Built with a simple but effective design, this litter box uses multiple built-in sensors to collect pet health data, which can be uploaded to the iPetCloud to provide users with health data reports and recommendations based on collaborations with local animal hospitals. This is also the first litter box we saw that can separate pet stools and urine, and can accommodate both cats and dogs.
CES 2019 also featured a fully automated toilet specially designed for dogs. Inubox, developed by Newtons Box, is made for heavy-duty use by small and medium dogs, and as such is significantly larger than many other toilets on the market. The device is triggered to open when a dog steps on a platform and checks for waste when the dog steps away. The station closes up and starts a cleaning cycle when it detects waste, and is ready for business again about a minute later when the cleaning is completed.
Bathing products are aimed at owners of pets that go outdoors or find other ways to get dirty. Korean companies Avec and Pepe both showcased drying boxes that not only dry pets’ fur after a bath with a gentle breeze, but can also disinfect. The devices can also help fight ticks and other skin-borne parasites; and relieve human pet allergies by minimizing dander, mold spores, etc.
Finally, a product that could compete with the cat treadmill for “most unusual” pet tech award at CES is Basepaws, a DNA test for cats. Something like 23andMe for humans, Basepaws uses saliva for analysis and generates reports on health information, ancestry, and assorted fun facts. Maybe your tabby is a distant cousin of Mr. Bigglesworth or “Grumpy Cat”?
In addition to companies focused on a single pet product category, there are also those managing multiple brands and attempting to build a pet tech ecosystem. Sure PetCare and Wagz brought products such as smart doors, feeders, and collar tracking products to CES. A benefit to this approach is users can manage all relevant products from a single app, and data collected can be shared. For example, the Wagz smart feeder can dispense the appropriate amount of foods for a pet based on their activity level as tracked on the smart collar.
While the proliferation of new smart products would seem to suggest that pets’ lives are getting better and better, most of what we saw at CES was clearly designed for the convenience of the humans who own pets. Maybe we should put the tech aside and reflect on our original motivation for adopting a lively pet? These creatures probably value loving words and a pat on the head more than a robot waving a flag, anyway.
CB Insights estimates that a total of US$486M was invested in the pet tech industry between 2012 and 2016. The market continues to expand, as AI introduces increasing convenience, personalization, safety and health benefits for pets.
Author: Mos Zhang | Editor: Michael Sarazen | Producer: Chain Zhang