The Quantified Cat: The democratization of innovation, marketing, and your pet


“It’s a clear fact that the Internet is made of cats,” says Chris Torres, the creator of Nyan Cat.

Now Whiskas, the cat food people, have made it possible to for your cat to make a little bit of the internet by posting their snaps on Instagram. Yes, you heard me right the first time.

In March 2015, Mars Petcare, the division of Mars that makes pet food like Whiskas cat food (rather than Mars bars) launched a marketing campaign that makes it possible for your cat to be a photographer and denizen of social media at the same time. Mars’ nifty piece of kit is called Catstacam.

Just what is Catstacam? According to Leigh D. Stark of GadgetGuy Australia, Catstacam is an Android watch with an inbuilt camera (sans bracelet/straps) loaded with a bespoke operating system, and housed in a 3D printed case that a cat would wear on its collar. The device is tethered to one’s wifi router. The camera starts taking a photo every 20 seconds when your cat is moving. And once every 10 minutes if your cat is stationary. If Catstacam is within range of your WiFi router, it uploads the images to your instagram account, with some boilerplate copy and hashtags.

Why am I writing about an event that happened a couple of months ago — old news?

Because while there are more smartphone apps for with marketing intent than one can poke a stick at, hardware based marketing campaigns are almost as rare as hen’s teeth.

Now to peel back a layer of the proverbial onion with another “why” question. Why are hardware based marketing campaigns so rare?

Until recently, building hardware was an expensive proposition. There are two parts to building hardware small enough to be worn by a cat, the electronics and the enclosure. I’ll start with the electronics because it’s got more twists and turns.

The concept behind Catstacam is not entirely new. Back in 2007, A German engineer, Juergen Perthold, designed and built a miniature digital camera to be worn on at cat’s collar. He named it Mr Lee CatCam after his cat, Mr Lee.

Mr Lee with the current version of CatCam. Source: consciouscat.net

Social media was young then. Facebook was going on three, Twitter — one. Instagram wasn’t even around. And mobile was just beginning. The iPhone 1 came into existence the same year. So Mr Lee CatCam was a back to base, USB cable affair. Since the CatCam, Perthold has also added GPS trackers, and a tiny video camera to his eStore. Such devices spawned a number of TV shows, the most notably BBC’s “The secret life of cats” presented by biologist and cat behavior expert and TV personality, Roger Tabor, and sponsored by Bayer Animal Health.

Between 2007 when Juergen Perthold created his Cat Cam and 2015 when Whiskas launched Catstacam, there’s been a revolutionary transformation in the electronics industry. It’s never been easier to prototype, design and fabricate, raise capital for, and sell electronics hardware.

On the prototyping front, platforms like the Arduino and Raspberry Pi are cheap programmable computers that allow tinkerers to connect a variety of sensors, and thus create viable prototypes of devices quickly and at low cost. While these prototypes are not physically small, they can be miniaturized and optimized once it has been demonstrated that the concept works.

Raspberry Pi 2. Source: element14.com

Crowdfunding is a godsend to tinkerers and makers. On any given day, there are many new crowdfunding campaigns on sites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo and Pozible. Often these are requests for donations to get the next cool internet connected device manufactured and into the market. So while the world was waiting for the Apple Watch which launched a few weeks ago, a small start up raised more than USD 10 million on Kickstarter in 2012 and produced the world’s first smartwatch — the Pebble watch in 2013. A few weeks before Apple released its highly anticipated watch to hungry consumers on April 24, Pebble raised USD 20 million for version 2 — Pebble Time which is supposed to run for 7 days on a single charge.

In the bad old days, every inventor ended up with a warehouse full of gizmos and desperately begged retailers and retail chains for shelf space. The maker movement has also created it’s own online market places like tindie.com — sort of the ebay of small batch hardware. So while it’s still a jungle out there, at least buyers can find one’s nifty gizmo that’s designed to scratch a very specific itch.

Tech media are by and large US based, and it’s no surprise that the coverage of possibly disruptive changes to the tech industry is US-centric. However, some of the tectonic movements are also occurring in Shenzen (深圳), China.

When Shenzhen is mentioned, most of us think of giant contract manufacturers like Foxconn, the folks that manufacture the iPhone, with their allegedly draconian HR practices. But according to Joi Ito, venture capitalist and Director of MIT’s Media Lab, Shenzhen has a nuanced and evolved ecosystem that makes it the hardware equivalent Silicon Valley.

Companies like Foxconn are at the top of the manufacturing food chain. Right at the bottom are tiny shops that “make 50 blinking computer controlled burning man badges” to the lone “guy rebuilding a phone while eating a Big Mac”. Slightly higher up the food chain is the “tiny shop that could assemble very sophisticated boards in single-unit volumes for a price comparable to a typical monthly cable TV bill.”

Joi is of the opinion that both Shenzhen and Silicon Valley not only have critical mass in terms of talent but are “both living ecosystems … that any other region will have difficulty bootstrapping.”

Chinese maker and co-founder of Shanghai’s first maker space, XinCheJian (新车间), David Li, distills the essence of the Shenzhen ecosystem. Despite Joi’s comparison with Silicon Valley, Shenzhen has it’s own take on tech innovation. David opines that Shenzhen’s deep ecosystem has its roots in their historical penchant for manufacturing knockoffs of branded products, and subsequently adding niche features. For example the dual sim card feature began life in cheap Chinese imitations and made its way into branded products. Li implies that this rich ecosystem developed from the free and open information flows that are the natural consequence of the region’s knockoff beginnings. Li dubbed this unique business culture “New Shanzhai”, where “Shanzhai” (山寨) loosely translates to “cowboy town”.

As an increasing number of sensors gets squeezed onto a circuit board that has a CPU and RAM, much of the innovation will be in the software. Software in the form of apps that harvest data from the sensors, sending that data to the cloud, where algorithms written by data scientists will make sense of this veritable deluge of data. Some of those insights will make their way back into new apps or new versions of apps to provide a new service to the end user.

As mentioned earlier, the Catstacam device is an Android watch with a bespoke operating system housed in a 3D-printed enclosure. I doubt the advertising agency, Clemenger BBDO, that created the Catstacam would have paid a premium for an original Samsung Android watch when they can get jump onto Alibaba’s website (think eBay for China’s manufacturers), or hop on a flight to Shenzhen and buy a bunch android watches from some vendor in one of the mobile phone markets in the Huaqiangbei (华强北) district of Shenzhen. On Amazon, the Samsung Gear 2 retails for USD 299. The generic version on Alibaba sells for USD 65 with a minimum order of 10 pieces. The folks in Shenzhen will probably also write the bespoke operating system and preload it onto each device if one knows the right people.

A vendor in the Huaqiangbei district of Shenzhen. Source: dangerousprototypes.com

Although enclosures are somewhat inert, designing and fabricating a good enclosure is a challenge. Most enclosures for small electronic devices are made by injection molding, a process where a liquid thermoplastic material is pumped into an aluminum or steel mold. The plastic material is cheap but creating the mold is usually a costly and time consuming affair — USD 20,000 to 40,000 with a lead time of 8 weeks. The high cost of the mold made producing small batches of enclosures prohibitively expensive. And this also made prototyping very difficult if not impossible.

Enter 3D printing and suddenly everyone with a consumer grade 3D printer is producing miniature Darth Vader helmets. 3dprinting.com explains the concept of 3D printing really well.

“3D printing or additive manufacturing is a process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file. The creation of a 3D printed object is achieved using additive processes. In an additive process an object is created by laying down successive layers of material until the entire object is created. Each of these layers can be seen as a thinly sliced horizontal cross-section of the eventual object.”

The Makerbot Replicator 2 3D printer. Source: disk91.com

Because 3D printing creates an object by laying down one layer at a time, it’s usually a pretty slow process compared to injection molding. This lack of speed is fine for Catsacam campaign because Whiskas weren’t shipping out the devices en masse. However, should demand for these devices go ballistic, the same digital file that was used for 3D printing can be sent off the an injection molding bureau to produce thousands of enclosures.

Recent developments in the injection molding technology have significantly reduced lead times needed to create the aluminum or steel mold. These improvements have made injection molding much more cost effective for smaller quantities. For example companies like Protomold cater to smaller orders from 50–5000 injection molded parts where the cost of making the mold is in the low thousands. Similarly, there are many companies in Shenzhen who offer the same low cost (or lower cost), lead time injection molding services for small batches.

Will we see more hardware based marketing campaigns in the future?

Yes. But most probably not with bespoke hardware. While it’s never been easier to easier to design and make prototypes of the any electronic device one can dream up, the rise of mainstream wearables like the Apple Watch and Android (Wear) watches means it’s more likely that marketers will leverage on on the capabilities these devices rather than developing some bespoke device for a campaign of limited duration. Even Catstacam is built on a reprogrammed an off-the-shelf Android watch.

The one huge exception is Disney’s MagicBand — a USD 1 billion project to reduce friction in the customer experience at Disney World. At the center of this project is a wrist band with an RFID chip and a 2.4 GHz radio (like in a cordless phone). The MagicBand gives the customer access to rides pre-booked online — so no more turnstiles, is used to make purchases at gift stores, and restaurants. In fact it alerts serving staff of one’s imminent arrival at a restaurant and they greet one by name.

Compared to a smartwatch, the MagicBand is technologically primitive. But it works so well because a Disney theme park is an articificial and manufactured environment. Disney has the luxury of installing thousands of sensors that keep track of where a specific MagicBand is, which is impossible in the real world. Also in keeping with Disney’s modus operandus of scripting and choreographing just about everything that happens in their domain, the bespoke wristband eliminates hardware and software compatibility issues that confronts software developers everywhere.

Back in the real world, as mobile devices pack more computing power, sensors and even actuators into ever shrinking packages, and at ever lower prices, it’s certain that marketers will think of clever schemes to leverage on the capabilities of our mobile devices to acquire our attention and shape our behavior. After all proximity marketing has been around for a few years now. Proximity or hyperlocal marketing uses wireless communications technology such as bluetooth to send marketing messages to mobile-device users who are in close range to a business. In his opinion piece in forbes.com, Greg Petro categorically states “Targeted offers based upon proximity leads to higher conversion rates, which is the ultimate goal for brands and their investors.”

Down the road, it’ll be interesting to observe how the contest over wearables evolves. And technological progress marches on relentlessly, at least until Moore’s law runs out of puff.

Meanwhile, I’ve just gotta get a Catstacam for my cat. Whiskas, would you please post one to me?

Key sources:
Whiskas brings Instagram to cats with Catstacam
Shenzhen trip report — visiting the world’s manufacturing ecosystem
The new shanzhai: democratizing innovation in China
Affordable Injection Molding Transforms Tinkerers Into Tycoons
How Proximity Marketing Is Driving Retail Sales

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