When PlayDate Founder and CEO Kevin Li adopted his dog Hulk in 2013, he had already spent over ten years studying human-computer interaction and prototyping products that use computing technologies in new ways.
As a researcher used to thinking outside the box (and a new pawrent to boot), Li quickly saw the opportunity to apply his expertise to the world of pets. Just three years later, the PlayDate “Smart Ball” he and his co-founder created (with input from Chief Product Officer Hulk, of course) is making its debut.
But the Smart Ball is only the beginning of Li’s vision for even more products that use cutting-edge technologies to improve the ways we interact with our pets.
Every time I take my dog out, I’m reminded of the fact that I’m using this nylon leash that hasn’t changed in forever. When I play with him at the dog park, it’s with a tennis ball that hasn’t changed in forever. With all this great technology, why is it that the way we interact with our pets is so antiquated? It doesn’t make any sense.
Li’s foray into the world of pet tech began with a wearable activity tracker he built inside of a tic-tac box and attached to Hulk’s collar. At the time, he says, it was “just a side project.” Li and his co-founder soon decided to revise the collar into a product they could sell. In a survey they found that few respondents had any major qualms with the product, but that a striking majority just felt guilty leaving their dogs at home. That’s when it clicked.
At first we thought, okay, we’ll have a collar that detects when the dog is going through separation anxiety and deploy this robotic ball to play with the dog. So for a while we were prototyping biometric sensors on the collar to track heart rate. It turns out its hard to measure because of the fur and because of the way you measure heart rate on a dog…We needed some way to mount a camera inside the ball, which turns out to be easier said than done.
A trial-and-error process helped Li and his co-founder optimize the product, for which they have raised nearly $400,000 on Indiegogo. One challenge was the mechanical stabilization that the camera required. Li likens the camera in the device to a hamster wheel, which is what allows the human user to see a steady video even as the ball is rolling.
But once the mechanics were figured out, they faced an aesthetic challenge. “We realized it looked like a crazy robot,” Li said. “So we thought, okay, we need to make this a little more playful, which is how we came up with the orange shell.” PlayDate is controlled through a touch pad, similar to playing a video game. It has a virtual squeaker as well as video- and photo-capturing capabilities. The outside is polycarbonate (similar to a Nalgene bottle) which is “virtually indestructible,” Li says.
While PlayDate is first and foremost a fast-growing pet technology startup, the novelty of the product may create an avenue toward new areas of research in canine cognition. The ball features two-way audio, a feature that has gotten human users very excited but has appeared to be confusing for canine users.
Talking to canine cognition experts, they say that [the dog] can identify your voice and he knows it’s your voice but he doesn’t understand where it’s coming from or why… One of the insights is that so much depends on smell. We see all these really interesting occurrences that would be really interesting to study in more detail. For example, one that we see in dogs is that they get super excited over this ball when it starts moving compared to a tennis ball. The theory I had is that because it seems to move on its own, it might be more like chasing a squirrel or rabbit. The folks I’ve talked to seem to think this is a very promising hypothesis, the idea being that it’s a more natural way for them to play.
With all the possibilities the world of pet tech opens up, big questions emerge about how new products and technologies create a new kind of 21st century pet ownership. Li says that he has been asked on a few occasions whether he thinks there’s a risk that pet owners could come to see a toy like PlayDate as a replacement for time spent in person with pets.
I think any kind of disruptive technology runs the risk that it could be misused. But… at the end of the day, the pet is still healthier and happier than they would be if that technology hadn’t been created. So as a whole, the pet population is still better off.
Looking toward the future, Li and his co-founder see the PlayDate Smart Ball as the first of many pet tech products; as the company grows, they’ll continue applying the latest technologies, such as cloud computing and wearables, to improve the lives of pets and their owners.
Humans (and dogs) that want to get their hands (or paws) on a PlayDate Smart Ball can pre-order one here for $169.00 to be shipped in mid-December. PlayDate is expected to hit the market in early 2017 at a retail price of $249.00.