Stakutis, July 2015
Colorized by the world’s people, some cats
may be bad. Very bad.
You are intrigued by the notion of a MeaowMeaow, but what does it mean to have a pet whose personality is programmable by a population of curious and artistic citizens? Well, some might be bad.
When you were first exposed to the non-child-toy human-aware mechanical cat, you simply envisioned a soft, white, cuddling cat that might purr a little, blink her eyes, and respond to a head scratch.
The pre-release MeaowMeow is indeed a simple robotic creature with admittedly few motions and features. Part of the charm of a MeaowMeaow is that future expansion of motions and motors and sensors is vast. More importantly, though, is that how any of those devices react is reprogrammable by the world of internet programmers, not just the deep scientists of humanoid robotics at prestigious research labs using very intricate mathematical programming languages. Essentially, a MeaowMeaow is a web page (albeit, with motion and interaction).
Let’s look at an example for clarity.
The pre-release kitty sits on her wireless charging pad as shown above (and as used in many cell phone technologies today). With modest power available, the spine and overall structure is held relatively fixed in the sitting position. Recall, one of the beauties of a MeaowMeaow is that it starts at very low cost with a modest number of articulations.
The eyes blink, but infrequently, and with slight randomization in cycle. The built-in low-grade speaker emits any mp3 or wav fragment with programmatic volume level and roughly from the mouth area. A very inexpensive thermal sensor near the nose (detecting boolean above or below 70 degrees) can be used to sense a hand approaching. A single low-power servo can orient the head rotation and a trivial dampening algorithm adds some realism to the heads motion speed. Similarly, a single servo controls the front right paw articulation, and, again, in this low-cost model, has a single final position.
Last, eight different touch-sensors cover various areas of the body such as the head-top, back-middle, lateral sides, tail, and nose. We have reached a grand total of fewer than 16 digital I/O’s (all boolean) and perhaps 4 time-based analog pins (for very coarse motor control). All what was just described can be controlled by well known Raspberry Pi or TI LaunchPad or other credit-card sized computers.
But let’s see why this is fun. The shipping model was designed to be a passive largely agnostic desktop friend that would occasionally move (head or paw), blink, purr, and all related to what motions it sees around it or touching it (or time of day or what’s playing on the radio, etc -- recall, think “web page”). So friendly.
Let’s start with the basics: Audio. They simply insert the “<audio/>” tag in the start HTML page and reference one of several new tones they created themselves with their Mac Audio tools. A long and low growl was one. A sharp-toned hiss another. Lastly, the ‘back-off’ meaow, and loud! It took no effort to have the audio use the bluetooth (just like your phone’s wireless headset) in case the user had a nearby stereo. Next, if a warm hand is sensed near the nose, well then, the jaw vibrates, enforced by the loud “back-off” meaow, and summarized with a nasty claw and paw jettisoned outward. (Using all normal html or node.js techniques such as events, asynchronous callbacks, worker threads, etc).
Yet the team wanted the user-experience to be somehow rewarding, even for such an evil cat. They decided that the tactile-sensors around the kitty body could be interpreted as some sort of code. Perhaps a back-pat followed by nose-scratch would produce an eye-blink. Done twice close-in-time, a quick tail flip (again, simple boolean pull motor). But three times in a row, you lose, and back to the hissing. It might take you an hour to figure out the right sequence to completely have acquiesced the bad cat (which releases the spine-hold lock and she drops to sleep on the table). Well, that is, until she updates tonight on your WiFi and may have a different personality by breakfast.
The bad-cat’s outfit simply unzips from the underside and you can see and play with all her electronic innards. New motors, new sensors, different spine. You can be sure 3rd parties will knit different outfits, sell different plug-in components, and even service your MeaowMeaow if you are not so good with screws and those tiny wires.
How about a summary:
Keep in mind, a MeaowMeaow is not intended to be the world's most advanced robotic creature. It will not run around outside or climb curtains or hunt birds or bombs. Early models probably won’t even walk or jump (but certainly evolution will advance the critters over time).
A MeaowMeaow is a new category of social awareness.
CTO, Architect, Visionary
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