Personally “He feels like a real cat,” says Jim McGuckin as I place Alan on his lap.
“I can feel the movements inside.”
Jim’s a resident at Lake Park, a care home for the elderly in the city of Oakland, California.
And Alan is the name I’ve given to a robotic “companion pet”, developed by toy maker Hasbro, that I’ve been looking after and talking to when no-one’s around, allegedly.
It’s the first product in the Joy For All range, an initiative that Hasbro says is about going beyond play and into areas that combat bigger problems. In this case, it’s loneliness.
The robocat is designed to mimic a real animal. It miaows, semi-convincingly, and it purrs, very convincingly. It’s fluffy and nice to stroke, although the rigidness of Alan’s electronic innards spoils any illusion that he is real.
But even with those flaws, it works. When you switch it on, you instinctively say “hello!” – and from that point onwards, it’s no longer a gadget. It’s a cat.
“Feeling the purr is really nice,” says Miriam Beames, who tells me that her beloved cat – Yum-Yum – died a year ago.
“For various reasons, I’ve thought I couldn’t get another one yet.”
The cat reacts to interaction via a series of fairly simplistic sensors across its body. A stroke of Alan’s back will make him purr, a tickle of the cheeks will provoke a miaow. If it gets dark, you’ll hear Alan yawn and nod off. The movements aren’t predictable, adding to its lifelikeness.
“We don’t think this is a replacement for a pet,” says Ted Fischer, vice-president of business development for Hasbro. And, incidentally, a man who is allergic to cats.
“What we’ve tried to create is this interactive companion which is familiar and has characteristics and is lifelike.”
As the world’s population ages, the business opportunity for Hasbro is enormous.
“We’re excited to make a commitment to this category. We’re going to watch how this goes and learn a lot.”
And research suggests there is a real benefit to providing people with companion robots, particularly if they are suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s.