Mew Are You?

Apparently yesterday was Facial Recognition for Pets Day. I must have missed the announcement, and for some odd reason, it doesn’t seem to be a Federal holiday, as I did have some mail delivered.

When I checked my e-mail, I found a note from Lior pointing me to an article about “Bistro”. The article in turn pointed me to the Indiegogo campaign.

Bistro is, as the masterminds behind it say, The Smart Feeder That Recognizes Your Cat’s Face. It can recognize your cats, dispense the amount of food you want them to have, display webcam footage of your cats eating, and generally do everything you would do except pat the cats.

Sounds like quite the spiffy gadget, doesn’t it? Let’s take a closer look, because quite frankly, I wouldn’t let this thing in the door.

According to the campaign page, Bistro can use advanced cat-facial recognition technology to determine which of your cats is eating or drinking, record each cat’s individual diet history (how much food and water it eats or drinks each time it visits the feeder), notify you of any change in the cats’ health status (eating more or less than usual), display the video stream from the facial recognition camera on smartphones, and “share your kitty’s life with Bistro’s online cat community”.

It works its magic by weighing the food and water it dispenses, so it knows how much the cats consume; weighing the cats every time they eat or drink; and sending all of the information to Bistro’s servers for analysis.

Why is the analysis done on Bistro’s servers? Why is the video stored and displayed from Bistro’s servers? Here’s a hint: “All features on the Bistro App will be FREE for every Bistro owner.” Catching on? Here’s another hint: “Get feeding and health advice…See cat food reviews and ratings”. Bistro isn’t saying it in so many words, but it seems clear to me that they expect to sell usage and user information to pet food manufacturers and probably other pet-oriented vendors. ‘Nuki is uppity enough as it is. Can you imagine what it would be like if he started getting mail?

Dear Mr. Watanuki,

Why do you continue to let your humans feed you that awful meat-based food that’s stale by evening?

It’s time for you to stand up for yourself and demand [name redacted] brand cat food, made with only the finest grains and loaded with preservatives to keep it fresh in your Bistro feeder all day!

Sincerely,

Corporate Drone #3752 (who is willfully unaware that cats are obligate carnivores whose digestive systems are tuned to eat meat…)

Actually cat food ads are the least of it. If they sell the usage data, their customers are going to start getting advertisements from vendors of miracle cures for renal failure.

Let’s get real here. If a smartphone can use facial recognition to unlock the screen, Bistro could easily hold enough brains to do the feline facial recognition locally and transfer the consumption and weight data to phones via Bluetooth just like exercise gear does for humans. The video could be held on the feeder on a cheap SD card (or a USB-connected hard drive for the real data fiends) and transferred over Wi-Fi. This is a $250 device folks, and it already has Wi-Fi capability. Adding BT, SD, and USB can’t add more than $15 to the cost, and the creation of the analysis software is pretty close to the same whether it’s being written and tested for Bistro’s servers or for individual users’ smartphones.

I suspect Bistro’s counterargument to doing all the processing locally is that by doing it on their central servers, they can detect changes in the data immediately and send alerts without having to wait for data to be dumped to the phone for processing. If so, I disagree: if they alert on a single feeding being smaller or larger than usual, they’re going to be generating a lot of false warnings*. Alerts should be based on series of atypical feedings, not a single, possibly-spurious event. If you’re looking for a series of events, daily uploads should be more than enough.

* Say, maybe they’re also getting paid by vets anticipating a surge in office visits. “Fluffy didn’t eat as much as usual in his midday feeding! What’s wrong with him?!” Nah, probably not. Who wants to field that many panicked phone calls?

On the other hand, I’m not a vet. Maybe there is some benefit in instant alerts. Fine. Build the thing around a Raspberry Pi instead of a custom processing board and do all the processing on the feeder instead of Bistro’s servers. Your total hardware and development costs probably go down instead of up, the alerts can be sent directly from the feeder (eliminating one possible point of failure in the process), and you can still do all of the same social functions. (Why the heck do they think anybody would want to watch videos of someone else’s cats eat?)

And I haven’t even touched on the security concerns of having all of that data on central servers. I’m not going to bother spelling it out here. It’s no different than Dropcam storing a continuous video record of your home; Apple, Google, and Amazon storing months of your location data; or Target storing your credit card information.

As of Wednesday evening, Bistro’s Indiegogo campaign was 60% funded with a month remaining. It seems likely they’ll succeed. I don’t wish them ill, but I hope I’m wrong about the demand for their product, because I doubt I’m wrong about their business plan.


OK, one product doesn’t make a national event. So why am I calling yesterday Facial Recognition for Pets Day?

After I finished digesting Bistro’s offering (sorry), I went downstairs to read the paper and I found an article about Finding Rover.

Finding Rover is a smartphone app that uses canine facial recognition to help locate lost dogs. (The developer, John Polimeno, is planning to expand to cats later this year–no word on whether it’ll be as part of the same service, or if he’ll be spinning off Finding Fluffy as a separate venture.)

You take a picture of your dog and upload it to their server. Users of the app take pictures of possibly-lost dogs which are matched against the database. If you’ve marked your dog as lost and a match is found, you get an alert.

Animal shelters are apparently very favorably impressed with Finding Rover. It’s free (advertising supported, but with ads on the website, not targeted ads sent directly to users), and users can enroll their pets without a visit to the vet to get a chip implanted.

Unlike Bistro’s case, for Finding Rover, uploading the photos to a central server makes sense: far better to do searches for matches in one place than redundantly on phones around the world. And, if properly handled, the amount of personally identifiable information can be much lower. At minimum, it could be no more than an e-mail address.

I’m going to wish Mr. Polimeno well. Our gang is chipped, and they’re indoors-only, but when Finding Rover expands to felines, I’ll give them a close look. At first glance, I don’t see a downside to having the fuzzies enrolled, just in case they get loose.

Here’s looking at you.

6 thoughts on “Mew Are You?

  1. You gotta be supervigilant with the Internet now–right you are. Although I might welcome a spinoff that tells me who leaves a loose stool in the litter box. But thanks for Find Rover–I’m running with this one in my own column and at the shelter community meeting. And you can be insubordinate–not that you need any encouragement or that you’d need to, anyway, with the microchips and the prisoners-of-love cat status–and throw in a feline photo anyway. What could they do?

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    • There’s some value in your spinoff idea, but do you really want to be the one responsible for a flood of litter box cams taking over the Internet?

      As for jumping the gun and submitting feline photos now, I suspect that until they fine-tune their recognition, you’ll get a lot of false matches. Not to mention that if they go with separate databases, line jumpers would wind up in the wrong place. I’d hate to wind up swapping an escaped cat for someone’s runaway dog.

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  2. I bet facial recognition doesn’t work so well on black cats. I have one of those cameras that’s supposed to know when it’s looking at a face and focus on it. It would know that Oberon’s face was a face, but Anais is so low-contrast that it doesn’t work on her.

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    • Good point, and that may be one of the reasons they haven’t rolled out a feline version yet. Just my (untutored) opinion, but I suspect that mono-colored dogs are rarer than cats. For what it’s worth, the Bistro folks are upfront about saying that they use the cats’ weight as an additional input to figure out which one is at the feeder.

      I suspect we’ll have similar problems with Yuki, possibly even more so, as he not only has the “all black” thing going, but also the apparent shape of his face varies greatly depending on how puffed up or flattened out his floof is.

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      • I can think of several different dog breeds right off the top of my head that are (or can be) solid-colored: Labrador retrievers, poodles, Newfoundlands, Samoyeds, Irish Setters, Schipperkes…

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      • I guess I was too casual in my comment. In my (limited) experience, solid-colored dogs have more variation in fur color than solid-colored cats. The subtle differences in canine fur tone tend to emphasize the facial features, making them clearer in a photograph.

        I could be totally wrong about that; just my NSHO.

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