While Dan Knudsen was getting his doctorate in neurosciences at UC San Diego, he studied auditory perception and learning, using behavioral, electrophysiological, and computational techniques.
While Leo Trottier was enrolled in UC San Diego’s graduate program in cognitive science, he published research on visual processing, and was interested in the idea of using a video game to help students learn anatomy.
Together, Trottier and Knudsen have founded CleverPet, a San Diego startup that has developed a Web-enabled and mobile app-connected snack server for dogs that they describe as “the world’s first interactive pet learning and entertainment device based on the science of animal behavior.”
The co-founders say CleverPet is intended to help dogs and other pets get through the boredom of the day while they’re alone at home. The company says American pets spend more than 10 billion hours alone. For a pack animal like a dog, that can lead to separation anxiety—and such behavioral issues as ceaseless barking, spinning thousands of circles while biting its tail, or gnawing on irrigation sprinklers in the yard.
Their solution is a battery-powered interactive device that rewards your dog with a treat for solving simple puzzles, using LED lights to illuminate three scuff-resistant plastic buttons. The device holds at least two cups of dry dog food, and can be programmed to automatically provide a kibble whenever a dog hits an illuminated button with its paw or when the animal masters more complex sequences or patterns.
Think of it as the paws that refreshes—or as a Dance Dance Revolution for your dog.
“The animal can interact with this all day long,” Knudson said during a CleverPet demonstration yesterday at San Diego’s Ansir Innovation Center, where the company has been incubating. “The cool thing is that we can make their interaction more challenging as they get better at it over time.”
The CleverPet founders say they are initially targeting dog owners. Trottier, who has two cats at home—Jonas and Salk—says some cats will interact with the CleverPet device and some won’t. In fact, one expert in animal cognition—comparative psychologist Christian Agrillo at the University of Padova in Italy—was quoted recently as saying, “I can assure you that it’s easier to work with fish than cats.”
CleverPet is one of four companies enrolled in HardTech Labs, a new San Diego accelerator program that offers hardware startups some investment capital and provides access to low-cost manufacturing in Tijuana.
The co-founders say they have funded their prototype development so far with a small angel investment. They also began a Kickstarter campaign today with a target goal of $100,000, which would enable Trottier and Knudsen to refine the design and get the CleverPet device into early production. They are working with Outerspace Design, a design and engineering firm in Melbourne, Australia.
All the pieces are in place, Trottier says, and early production models should be available by next spring as rewards for contributors who support CleverPet’s Kickstarter campaign.
Trottier and Knudsen based their prototype on an Arduino processor and Spark Core, a small WiFi-enabled development board that makes it easy to connect to the Internet. Using the technology, the co-founders also developed a mobile app that enables pet owners to access their home CleverPet device remotely, see how much food a dog has consumed, and adjust the program to make it easier or more challenging. The co-founders say it would be relatively easy to create a Web page for each device, so pet owners could log onto a website to see how their pet is doing. Adapting a bit of video game jargon, they joke that pet owners will want to see if their dog has earned enough experience points to “level up.”
“This device is going to cut down on boredom, anxiety, destruction, and self-mutilation—behaviors known as kennel stress or kennel crazy,” Trottier said.
San Diego dog trainer Graham Bloem, who has been working with CleverPet, says dog owners already are hiring dog walkers or taking their pets to doggie daycare. In fact, Americans spend more than $58 billion a year on their pets, according the American Pet Products Association.
Nevertheless, Bloem says the pet world has been asking for something like CleverPet for a long time. Instead of coming home to a bored and anxious dog with pent-up energy, Bloem says interacting with CleverPet “exhausts your dog mentally and physically. You’re coming home to a healthy, happy pet.”
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