For the cat who has everything: Internet-operated feather teasers

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Jonsing for some kitty playtime? For this week’s New York Times’ City Room, I wrote about Manhattan’s Bideawee animal shelter’s new iPetCompanion, a system of remote-operated cat toys that can be maneuvered online. The iPetCompanion is actually built using machinery that was developed for businesses wanting to use the Internet to do hands-on work at a distance.

The iPetCompanion is the brainchild of Scott Harris, a business developer in Boise, Idaho, whose company, Apriori Control, makes technology that can remotely operate machinery.

Last year, one of Mr. Harris’s engineers announced that he had not gotten any work done the night before — he was too busy playing with his cat, who was mesmerized by a prototype he was working on — a mechanical arm to allow people to remotely inspect items in factories. The cat had other ideas about what the machine should be used for, and was swatting at the device, which seemed to be moving spontaneously.

Mr. Harris’s interest was piqued, and he said to his engineer: ‘Well, if you had fun, what would normal people think?’ ”

Mr. Harris called the Idaho Humane Society and offered to donate a version of what he decided to call the iPetCompanion. Within the first two weeks, the humane society’s Web site traffic went up astronomically.

“The pound hasn’t traditionally been a place that shows innovations in the tech world,” he said. But he saw potential: At parties and meetings, the same eyes that would glaze over when hearing about the possibilities of moving a conveyor belt in Singapore from a Wisconsin cubicle would light up at the mention of long-distance cat teasers.

Mr. Harris has no pets and is not a cat person. “This could not be more opposite from my area of interest,” he said. But he was pleased to learn that kitten adoptions at the Idaho Humane Society went up significantly in the weeks after the toys’ installation. Then he started to hear about the non-felines whose lives were influenced by the remote-controlled cat toys, such as a paraplegic cat lover who said she was homebound and could not have pets in her building. “It made me realize how many people want to interact with cats,’’ Mr. Harris said.

Read the rest of the story at the City Room blog. You can log into the playdate directly at But be forewarned: Playing with cats on the Internet is not a good way to up your work productivity. It also might result in a certain degree of judgment from certain loved ones.  I felt sort of guilty playing with the online kittens while my own cat stared into the distance, bored out of her kitty mind. If only I could stick her inside of my Mac. So much going on in there! But I can’t even get her interested in the mouse.


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