The Hawking Project

Electronic Interface for Feline Communications

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I wasn't much of a cat person...until one adopted us and I learned that a lot of the things I believed about them were wrong. Including their level of intelligence, which I'm fascinated by. After a few years of having a cat I began to wonder what their limits of communication ability are. This project aims to explore the edge of those limits by creating a device which a cat can use to communicate more directly with it's humans.

My basic idea is to find a kids toy with large, distinct buttons that can be pressed with a paw. I'll then gut that device and use the keys to interface with an Arduino. The Arduino will play back either a voice synthesized or prerecorded word that is associated with that button.

Words can be grouped to communicate simple ideas. eg. "Mom" "Food"

  • 1 × 1x Arduino Probably a Nano
  • 1 × Hardware interface device (keyboard from Kids toy) Currently considering the VTech "Touch & Teach Turtle" as the donor.
  • 1 × SparkFun MicroSD Audio Module

  • Interface difficulties

    Tachyon03/30/2015 at 21:36 0 comments

    When I first got this idea I thought I'd simply pop down to the local resale shop and have my pick of kids toys with suitable buttons for this project. However, a year after I started looking it seems that kids toys aren't like I remember them. Current toys almost always have custom shaped, inconsistent interfaces full of various shapes and colours. More I think to attract parents into buying than for any scientifically based educational enhancing reason.

    Because of this I had nearly given up and was considering building my own keyboard from scratch. As you can imagine this is more work than I wanted to put into this. Such a device would have to be sturdy, reliable, safe (free from sharp edges and electrical wiring). All reasons I first thought I'd use a kids toy. However, I recently came across the green turtle pictured in the gallery and I think it may be worth exploring, at least for my first prototype.

    Meanwhile, I figured I'd post this project here so that I can start getting feedback and suggestions. For example, I'm still not sure how I want to handle the output of the spoken words. For now I have a SparkFun MicroSD Audio module which I may use depending on how big of a PITA it is to get operating and to trigger specific audio files from the Arduino.

    I also have several Arduino choices and I'm inclined to go with an Arduino Nano clone as they're small, cheap and fairly capable.

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Tachyon wrote 04/19/2015 at 02:22 point


I hit the resale shops today and scored an input device bonanza!

So the Turtle is out and the new toys will have to be sorted through while I figure out an arrangement of buttons and segments that will work best for the project.

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Eric Hertz wrote 04/12/2015 at 05:04 point

Wow, if your cats have the patience for this, maybe you could send 'em my way to teach my cat a lesson or two... I swear she's actively-defiant when it comes to learning things.

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Tachyon wrote 04/09/2015 at 17:35 point

I got around to opening the donor toy today. As I expected/feared the main board is nothing more than a glop of epoxy covering a single custom chip so I wont be reusing any of that. 

On the plus side, all of the I/O is separate and easily integrated into the project. The buttons, lights and speaker are all easy to reuse with no modification. 

The other piece of good news is that this thing has enough empty space inside that I could put about any hardware I want inside with room to spare so I won't have to compromise or get too creative to put my own hardware inside.

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diysciborg wrote 03/31/2015 at 06:18 point

cats a strong command of color recognition, and can even reproduce something seen when given a choice of colors and canvas. Look into cat painting books. There are methods known to work well with some cats.

So given this ability, I'd suggest buttons with distinct shapes and colors.

Also remember that language is just encoding. As it turns out, MANY animals can communicate if a common code is learned/trained which both parties can easily produce.  Assign distinctive colors and shapes to distinctive ideas and you'll be a good step forward.

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Tachyon wrote 04/01/2015 at 15:23 point

Thanks for the feedback. That's exactly why I posted this project at such an early stage. I'm going to need feedback and help to make this work so the more the merrier.

As for buttons, as I mentioned in the overview, I've had a very tough time finding anything even close to suitable which is why I'm going to proceed with what I have for now. I can easily migrate to different input hardware if I find something better. Meanwhile, I figured I would put stickers over each button with different colours and pictures or symbols. I don't know how abstract cats can think so I was thinking pictures might be best to start, as long as they're simple and legible. For example, if I include a picture of the food dish, I'll light it well and put it against a plain, high contrast background.

On the technical side, my only real issue is the speech output. I'm not sure where to go with that. Right now I do have the SparkFun audio board but I'm still not sure how easy it is to make it just play the file(s) you want in any order. It really seems setup to act like a music player with buttons to skip forward and back between tracks.

I'm tempted to either get another chip, get a speech chip, or bag the whole thing and connect the arduino to an old Android device and use that to do the speech. For now though I just want to get something working to test the basic design.

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