Not a week goes by without a new announcement by the tech giants regarding our robotic future. OpenCat was born from the imagination of a single maker, inspired by the feline mystique, who is working hard on its open source debut.
As Boston Dynamics prepares to commercialize its household SpotMini and Sony launches the new incarnation of Aibo endowed with artificial intelligence, Rongzhong Li, professor in computer science and independent maker, is raising in his bedroom a DIY pet robot that takes the essence of both dogs and conjugates them in the feline: OpenCat.
Created in July 2016, OpenCat started out as an artistic project, whose abilities Rongzhong Li has been developing ever since. Currently the robot cat can walk, turn, trot and jump on four legs, regain its footing, find its balance, recognize faces and obstacles, respond to touch, meow… and when paired with a synthesized voice, its creator claims, complain in human language if treated rudely.
OpenCat demo by Rongzhong Li (February 2018):
This prototype aspires to become universally accessible. Whoever might like to build their robot cat will be able to do so with open source, an Arduino, a Raspberry Pi, a 3D printer and the desire to learn. Making progress in the transition to mass production, this year Rongzhong Li launched the start-up Petoi, and he has just relocated from North Carolina to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which offers a wider network of both talents and opportunities.
At the same time, he is initiating a collaborative community, including an invitation-only group to work on building the simplified version of OpenCat. The short-term milestone is to launch this mini model as an educational kit. “Someone is already close to a functional duplicate, says Rongzhong Li, with a lot of expertise and challenges of course. It’s surprisingly insightful and diverging, even on that simplified model.”
Hello World! pic.twitter.com/QbbZt0sm8Y
— OpenCat (@PetoiCamp) March 3, 2018
Rongzhong Li is also looking for full-time collaborators who can complement his skillset and mindset, as “it’s extremely challenging to launch a crowdfunding campaign before finding a devoted partner.” For now, the inventor is opening up the project: “Ideally, I want to explore new features as fast as possible, while an experienced and efficient team can turn these features into a practical product. However, the fancier it grows in my bedroom, the harder it is to make it scalable. So it’s necessary to slow down R&D and put efforts into organizing the project as a company with predictable budgets. Ultimately, it will help to increase my efficiency and pass on the knowledge as well.”
Long live robocats!
As Boston Dynamics continues to inspire increasingly sophisticated DIY legged robots—while terrifying the general public with its own robots’ implicit military applications—Rongzhong Li is more interested in the ecological, esthetic and emotional qualities of his OpenCat, as one of the more advanced low-cost amateur projects.
“I wanted to explore how fast I could make a robot run with inexpensive components. I’m the kind of person who sees the value in trash and thinks twice before throwing things away and polluting the earth.”
In response to OpenCat’s occasional Frankenstein association, the professor points out that recreating life has long been a philosophical topic. “Although I created this robot, I really miss the traditional harmony between humans and nature. I even feel sorry that I’m using a lot of plastics on the robot. It will amplify the elegance of living creatures, and encourage people to respect the wonder of life. To fully understand how this robot works, one needs to learn many subjects. Eventually he/she may realize that everything is related, that trash could be either poison or treasure.”
If Rongzhong Li chose to create a feline robot instead of a gorilla, octopus or other insect, perhaps he was seduced by cats’ elegant movements and unpredictable character. “I used to enjoy watching animal videos and admire their skeletons and mechanics. First I designed a more general algorithm for quadruped mammals with various limb geometries and joint configurations. I even crawled like a baby to wake up my instinct as a quadruped animal. I won’t say that I have overcome the challenges of recreating their movements, but I do wish to provide a more intuitive and affordable framework for building a walking machinery. The cat had been running in my mind one year before I made it walk. Randomness will be vital for creating an illusion of freewill. And I’ll infuse some humor to mirror cats’ mischievousness.”
Given its infinite possibilities for personalization as well as extensibility through applications to enrich and modify it, OpenCat offers a concrete glimpse of the future feline, DIY and open source version of the famous Japanese robopup. “Aibo is the pioneer in companion robots,” admits Rongzhong Li. “However, it’s created by a tycoon company and serves the high-end market. The easiest way to imagine a companion robot will be a traditional pet with the capability of conversation and connectivity, and without the requirements of feeding and caring. Price will be a key factor for the popularity of robotic pets.” In conclusion, the OpenCat inventor customizes Thomas Edison’s famous quote on electricity: “We will make robotic pets so cheap that only the rich will raise animals.”