Stakutis, July 2015

The age of people-aware robotic pets is upon us.

The world has long anticipated household robotic pets but each attempt over the years continues to disappoint buyers due to clumsy coarse and repetitive mechanical  motions. The robotic pet remains still a toy, suitable for a small audience of young people entertained by an inexpensive birthday gift.

Intuitively though, we all know that technology advances rapidly and computers are becoming invisibly small and outrageously inexpensive. Drones are now a common device and high-density but tiny cameras live in a variety of devices. Your new Apple watch truly is computer. Internet connectivity can now be extended wirelessly to any device in any setting,  for communicating, picture sharing, device updates, and a million other activities.

While technology advances clearly help create new products and solutions such as computers as watches and flying vehicles, there is yet another major advance on the horizon  that will lead to explosive value-creation from something as simple as a robotic pet.  What is that major advance? The ability for anyone with creative energy to write and contribute to open-source software, build open hardware, share in open-everything. We can all create synergistically when we are united by openness.

Clearly we see how open-source has transformed the software development world. The massive success of Linux and thousands of software “stacks” has enabled a new breed of talented developers to work cooperative with each other, literally around the world, and continuously add-value and advance base products.  This is worth repeating: Open source continuously advances and adds value to products that start with modest capabilities but evolve into a solution for very challenging problems.

This is what powers a belief in MeaowMeaow--that there is a new era of robotic pets that can serve as a launch pad for open robotics. No longer will there be “mechanical and fixed-reaction” toys. The new robotic devices are going to be built out of incredibly inexpensive components that are easily extendable with open source software written by an ecosystem that includes individual users and companies.

Here’s how this concept could be brought to reality. Take, for instance, the Raspberry Pi or TI LaunchPad.  These are single-board computers that are the size of a credit card and retail for between $5 to $15. They run a real operating system such as Linux. They can have GPS, motion sensors, cameras; ethernet, WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity, and even HDMI-output for HDTV. More importantly, they can also operate for months or even years off of a single AA battery; and they have general purpose I/O pins which can drive servo motors or LEDs or detect temperature & moisture.  These devices are fueling the current “Internet Of Things” (IoT) movement--bringing compute-power to unimaginable places and for only a few dollars.

How is this related to robotic pets? The same technology can fuel and even accelerate the open advancement of robotics. With robotic pets, anyone can create anything from embryonic motorized “toys” to near-conscious-aware appliances.This is possible not just because their motors might be smaller and cheaper and have better accuracy. Rather, it’s because the motors are connected to compute-engines with enormous (but tiny) memories and have an ability to run incredibly intense algorithms. While all this is going on, they are continuously connected to you while also knowing such things as weather and market conditions, proximity to yourself exposed by your phone, your chats and facebook posts. They could even be programmed to recognizing images of themselves.

Its not rocket science any longer.  All of these capabilities are in-play today and in open-source today. Free.  Free to bundle, free to tweak and adjust with instant updates as new versions emerge on the internet.  THIS is how the open source world works today, benefiting huge and small businesses and every software developer.

Perhaps an example may drive-home the message.

Today you can buy an “mechanical cat toybot” for $150 or so. It has a proximity sensor near its ear so that a human touch or scratch in that region will activate a mechanical “eye blink and close” response. The same touch may also start-up the playback of a low-tone purr. A slight pat on the upper neck and she’ll lovingly turn her head in acknowledgement.

That’s not a MeaowMeaow.

Why?  The activities this toybot can do are fixed.  Its limited to reacting only seven different ways. That’s all, and forever.  And those reactions are wired-in when it leaves the factory. A child  quickly realizes for example that the type of tail wagging it performs is repetitive and not like a real kitty . Perhaps worse, the toybot also knows nothing about you.

By contrast, because a MeaowMeaow kitty transparently absorbed a subtle software update to the “tail wag” algorithm last night, it can now sense your child approaching. As your child gets closer the tail movements change, pulsing the tip of the tail once to the left perhaps, and later raising it when the child is closest. Or, because a Canadian sociology researcher was not happy with the head-tilt-and-blink sequence, she submitted a change via open source which was accepted by the community and suitable for your child's kitty. And, because a team of students at MIT open-sourced a new spatial-memory technology that allows a small computer to hold an enormous amount of learned-mapping information about your house, your neighbor’s kid could have just learned how to use that library in conjunction with new sensors for MeaowMeaow kitty’s paw pads. It didn’t work very well at first, but someone in Egypt realized the bug (using factorial recursion instead of a predictable loop) and now all is well.

This sort of sharing happens all the time today in the open-source world and is transforming how business is done.  What you might think would lead to a reduction in the need for software engineers (due to the extreme sharing and commonization) in fact increases the need for engineers in technology.  Having a stable base and an open-platform that is based on broadly understood skills actually propels the need for business to add their own unique value and solve higher order problems that were unsolvable before.

MeaowMeaow does not say that next month we will have highly mobile animal-type robots running around our houses. Many great challenges remain with robotic motion--especially imitating natural motion in a natural non-mechanical way.  With time however, advances in motors, sensors and battery-life will all help.  What MeaowMeaow is saying is that right now, today, we have a new style of business value creation called open source and it is working extraordinarily well in many industries.  This new style has not yet been applied to mass consumer devices such as toy robots partly because the physical technology (motors, computers, power) has been too costly and awkward, but more importantly, the notion of a universe-of-programmers was not envisioned for such a market. That all changes with the open source world of today.

An additional charm of MeaowMeaow is that it fully embraces the consumer-entertainment market while not trying to make a robot that mows your lawn or optimizes your sprinkler system or helps you find a better parking spot at the mall.  Entertaining consumers is a different market opportunity, and proven highly lucrative by these examples: Walkman, Rubix Cube, Console games, iPod, Smart Phones, eWatches, eReaders, GPS, and many more.  MeaowMeaow is the next evolutionary step as it is not merely software and not merely a mechanical toy, but a blend of robotics with human creativity using the power of the internet at core.

And probably more fun than your Roomba.        

CTO, Architect, Visionary

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