Meet the robot cat who moved to Pittsburgh to teach STEM skills

This fickle feline has more than 9 lives.

OpenCat

OpenCat

MJ Slaby / the incline
MJ Slaby

When it comes to four-legged house pets, dogs are the obedient ones, while cats do what they want.

But imagine a sassy feline that lives forever — introducing OpenCat, a walking robotic cat that can be programmed to be as independent as its live counterparts.

“It will not always be nice to you,” said Pittsburgh-based creator Rongzhong Li.

So if it doesn’t listen, is it a fault in the software, or it just being a cat?

Users will never know.

Cats, even the robot kind, like to climb.

Cats, even the robot kind, like to climb.

mj slaby / the incline

Li started working on OpenCat as a hobby in 2016 while teaching computer science and robotics at Wake Forest University.

He didn’t mean to make a robot cat — just something that was easily accessible. When he put two sensors around a camera, it looked like a feline, and he stuck with it, in part, because robot dogs have been done. Robot kits are typically expensive and that means fewer people can play with them, he said. (Li has yet to set a price for OpenCat.)

Plus, a robot cat helps attract people to STEM who might not care about robots otherwise. Li said he noticed this with Wake Forest students when he brought them the kit he’d been working on. (Watch a video of the class here.)

In 2017, Li decided he wanted to get serious about the project, so he founded parent company Petoi.

This June, he moved to Pittsburgh, choosing the city for its resources and AI connections over cities like Seattle and Boston, as he started focusing on funding and manufacturing.

Petoi is based at Factory Unlocked, a North Shore workspace that provides startups with tools to manufacture their products. Li is currently working to determine the best materials and tools to produce OpenCat. His goal is to start beta testing soon and launch a crowdfunding campaign in the fall.

Prototypes walk, sit and even balance on inclines. One version even has white paws.

Watch how OpenCat evolved:

Li plans to manufacture two versions of OpenCat and keep the code open source. One will be a robotics kit for makers, as well as students and teachers in science, technology, education and math. It come with a basic lesson plan and some programming, but users will be able to “teach” it to sit or use facial recognition. One possibility is to integrate the robotic feline with Alexa, meaning this pet will actually answer questions. (Be careful what you wish for.)

A second “higher version” will have more programming built in and will be for people not in STEM, but who want it as a toy for themselves or as a friend for their living pets, Li said. This is the version that he plans to add personality akin to an actual cat.

Li said he has two main goals for the robotic feline — making the best possible robot cat and “to help as many people as possible.”