This $150 cat toy can teach us a lot about what makes a robot useful

Scout the cat cares not for the robot.
Scout the cat cares not for the robot.
Image: Quartz/ Dave Gershgorn
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Sometimes it’s obvious why you would want a robot. The Roomba, arguably the most commercially-successful robot in history, vacuums the floor for you. Vacuuming is objectively boring and annoying, so there’s a distinct satisfaction in both delegating away a chore you dislike, plus there’s no guilt that you’re dumping the task on someone else. This success has been mirrored for other domestic tasks like lawn mowing and pool cleaning.

Consumer robots typically give us something back: Time. On average people spend more than an hour cleaning, maintaining their homes, and cooking a day. What would you do if a robot gave you an extra hour or two per day?

But all this reasoning changes when you bring automation into the activities that you actually want to do. And it definitely changes when you’re trying to automate an activity for something with an unlimited amount of time. And no animal has more time on its paws than a cat.

Mousr is a consumer robot that tries to automate the time spent with your cat. It’s a small, vaguely mouse-shaped robot with a series of bouncing tails, and can be programmed to move erratically or spin in circles, or can be completely user-controlled. It costs $150.

As a Bluetooth-connected device from a startup, the setup process is surprisingly smooth and simple. Mousr connects quickly and without hassle, and you’re ready to play after a few education screens on how to drive the robot.

The biggest gamble with Mousr is whether your cat will actually care. My cat was interested in Mousr for about 3 minutes, and then went back to playing with a compressed ball of her own fur.

Here’s what the other cats of Quartz thought:

Kira, managing editor, owner of Godzilla and Sandra:

I have two cats, whose distaste for expressing visible interest in any toy is only matched by their mutual dislike—we’re talking a six-year grudge here. To my surprise, they were *both* intrigued by Mousr, and better yet: would actually tolerate one-another—almost play together, even—when in Mousr’s beeping, rolling, flicking presence. So excited was I by this development that I actually swallowed my senses and BOUGHT THIS TOY. I awaited its arrival, looking forward to afternoons spent cuddling two cats who would also be best friends.

After three days of glorious shared Mousr enjoyment, they both got bored of it and now Mousr lives in a drawer.

Holly, talent lab editor:

When my 13-year-old daughter, Zoey, started setting up the Mousr, it immediately reminded her of her childhood Zhu Zhu pets (paywall). Among the hottest toys of 2009, those fuzzy, motorized hamsters zoomed around unpredictably on their own, emitting cutesy squeaks.

Our cat, Tomie Twotone, always seemed befuddled by the Zhu Zhus. He was puzzled by the Mousr at first too, watching it alertly but warily for the first few minutes it careened around the living room. And its alarm-like sounds continued to confuse him. But when he realized it was a plaything, he started not only batting at the attached toy, but also throwing his whole body into it, twisting around to follow it and chase after the flicking, feathered robotic tail.

So Tomie definitely enjoyed it, and Zoey found it fun to control, but I’m not sure I could justify spending nearly four times as much on the Mousr as a Zhu Zhu cost almost 10 years ago.

Joe Chagan, web application developer:

It’s a great toy but not for every cat. All three of mine are on the old side and only the youngest one expressed any interest at all. She didn’t care to chase it, and only would swat at its tail a bit when I flicked it around. I think a stationary device that just randomly waves a standard cat toy (stick + string) around would work just as well or better since it wouldn’t be as noisy.

That said, it’s got a lot of smart ideas. The mouse does a great job of staying oriented to the controller (something Sphero struggles with) and you can enable position tracking, so you can move around with your phone and the orientations do a great job of staying lined up. Even after collisions. If nothing else it’s fun for humans to play with. Especially if you like annoying disinterested cats.

At the end of the day, Mousr either automates the process of moving your arm, or allows you to indirectly play with your cat in a different way. If you physically cannot move your arm, due to a disability or illness, then Mousr might actually be a way to help your cat and yourself. Mousr also bills itself as an “robotic cat sitter,” if you “need to get some work done or simply need a break.” I have to give the caveat that cats sleep like 90% of the day, and if you don’t want to play with your cat it will likely just go to sleep.

But if you just want a different way to play with your cat, or even see your cat’s reaction to a tiny self-propelled object, maybe tape a feather to a $10 RC car and drive it around your home. For the money, it’s unclear how much more enjoyment a cat will feel playing with this toy as opposed to any other cat toy that can be bought for a fraction of the cost.

It may be unfair to weigh the benefit of a toy against the benefit of a time-saving tool like a Roomba. But Mousr isn’t a toy for you, instead it’s a toy for the fickle beast you keep in your home which they may or may not enjoy more than any other cat toy, and a tool to help you enjoy that time more effectively. It’s not a tool to play with your cat remotely, because you have to be connected via Bluetooth and it doesn’t have a timed play mode or anything. And it’s doesn’t do anything you can’t already achieve with a piece of string.

The best robots automate some part of our lives that we don’t want to do. Robots are already changing the way the world’s largest businesses operate, most easily seen through Amazon’s automation of its warehouses and fulfillment centers. Robots are cheaper over time, work longer hours, and don’t need to use the bathroom.

It’s appealing to bring a robot into our homes because it does something novel, like playing with your cat or telling you the weather with a smile, but the simple truth of robotics in 2018 is that robots are often far too expensive for the task they’re actually meant to fulfill. Anki’s robot costs $250 and plays games on your desk. The Aibo robot costs $2,900 dollars to be a poor facade for a dog.

It likely won’t stay that way for long. Just as the smartphone made the cost of mobile processing components cheaper, there will likely be a similar trajectory for robotics. We just have to figure out what robots are actually good for.