Another post about crowdfunding, but…

…this time it’s something interesting: the Bistro cat feeder with facial recognition.

Many of my friends know that I have an automatic cat feeder, because my cats were constantly waking me up at night to be fed. As well, the autofeeder was great for when I travelled, enabling the cats to live on their own (with people checking in every other day or so).

My cat feeder is a decent piece of engineering that I had shipped from Texas, and it’s worked pretty well over the years. However, it’s nothing compared to the Bistro, which monitors your cat’s eating habits and weight, comes with a mobile app, and looks pretty cool. Oh, and that whole thing about it identifying different cats via facial recognition. Yikes.

In contrast, my feeder is basically a large hopper with a motorized dispenser that relies on a plug-in 24hr timer. It’s attached to a 2×4 post mounted on half-inch-thick particle board.

The honest truth is that I don’t know if this crowdfunding campaign (which is on Indiegogo) will succeed, as I suspect that this may be a case of over-engineering to solve a very specific problem (visit the campaign to read the story behind it). While I do think there’s a ton of value in the features (relative to the cost), I’m not sure that enough people will perceive a benefit relative to their existing setups, whether that involves hand-feeding or something closer to my “dumb” autofeeder. There’s also the risk that it just won’t work with a particular cat, seeing as we’re talking about a famously finicky species of animal. Without a return policy, it would be tough to pony up US$149 for the early-bird pledge, or $249 for the full price.

That being said, this is exactly the kind of campaign that should go on a crowdfunding website. If the product comes into existence, it’ll be due to the inventors seeing a need, and the general public (or a subset) agreeing that the need should be filled.

For my part, I won’t be one of the backers. My existing cat feeder fills my need, and the benefits of the Bistro aren’t compelling enough to warrant a change (or the associated cost).

For those people who would consider it, I do see a couple of potential weaknesses that should be considered. For one thing, facial recognition is unnecessary for one-cat households (such as mine). Also, most of the cats I know will come running when they think they’re about to be fed. I can’t see how that would work for the Bistro, since it needs one cat to eat at a time (so that it can track dietary data). That’s a traffic jam waiting to happen.

If you were to set up the Bistro such that it spits out food only when it recognizes a specific cat, you’d have other issues. This would work for cats who only eat when they feel like it (and not constantly), but it strikes me that those cats don’t need the Bistro since they self-regulate their eating. Maybe they’d benefit, but that’s a hard sell for owners.

If the feeder were to respond only when a cat comes up to it, I know exactly what would have happened with Chet. He would spend all day sticking his little face into the feeder hole, trying to figure out why food comes out sometimes, but not other times. Why do I know this? Because the first autofeeder that I tried to use for the cats (over a decade ago) had a glaring weakness, which was that the chute mechanism was poorly designed. Chet would lay on his back in front of the feeder, shove his paw up the chute, and rattle it around until food shook loose. Sometimes it would a few pieces…other times it would be an avalanche. Either way, the food would hit him in the face, land on the floor, and be promptly eaten by his sister, Min.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Chet was not a smart cat.

Bottom line is that I think the Bistro is a reasonably good idea, but that the audience might be a bit too narrow for it to succeed. Still, I wish the inventors the best of luck over the next 30 days, and I’ll be keeping an eye on their campaign.

UPDATE: less than 24 hours later, they’re already halfway to their US$100,000 goal. So, I’m pleased to say that my pessimism was unwarranted!