Stellenbosch engineer Johan du Preez and his partner have designed this toy leopard, named Communi-Kat. Photo: Melinda Stuurman

Imagine having a pet that loves and recognises you, without having to fork out for expensive animal food, or having to clean up after it.

Two engineers linked to Stellenbosch University didn’t just imagine it. They went out and built it.

Professor Johan du Preez and former student Dr Ludwig Schwardt have spent the past few years creating Communi-Kat, a plush leopard toy that actually forms a bond with its owner.

Using patented pattern recognition, the prototype toy created by the two electronics engineers recognises its owner’s voice and responds.

So when Schwardt takes Communi-Kat out of his box and starts talking to him, the animal immediately begins purring. But when he’s handed over to a stranger, he quickly registers the change, and starts showing signs of discomfort.

First he starts making a high-pitched whining sound, which soon deteriorates into a growl.

Upset him enough, and he’ll forget all about you, however, as Communi-Kat proves when Schwardt yells at him.

The two engineers both have serious day jobs. Du Preez is a professor at Stellenbosch University, while Schwardt is working on another “kat”, the Meerkat radio telescope being developed in the Karoo.

But they decided to build something “cute and fun” together.

The original idea, called Communi-Kate, was solely computer-based. But communications consultant Annette van der Spuy felt that in order for the idea to catch on, it needed to be tangible, so she and her two daughters set out to find a suitable toy.

They came back with a plush little leopard, dressed in a striped top and jeans – and Communi-Kat was born.

Innovus Technology Transfer, which commercialises Stellenbosch University’s research and inventions, is now looking at turning the idea into a toy people can buy for children.

The developers compare the toy to a Tamagotchi, the digital pet that was all the rage a few years ago. It required constant care, with the owner having to press buttons to feed it and put it to bed. If you neglected it, it died.

Du Preez said the cat had a Tamagotchi feel, “in the sense that it’s not a toy that you put down and it is the same when you pick it up again”.

The programme used to run Communi-Kat has a built-in forget function, which means that if the toy is tossed aside and forgotten for a few weeks, it will forget its owner too and behave accordingly.

“It needs constant attention, and if you neglect it, and someone else nurtures it, it will bond with that person,” Schwardt said.

Van der Spuy added: “Children these days are exposed to a lot of virtual games where they are encouraged to abuse something, but this actively encourages nurturing.”

And it’s so clever that it can tell when you’re trying to impersonate someone else, and can pick out its owner’s voice in a two-person conversation.

“It’s reasonably hard to impersonate another person’s voice, and the signal process is rather robust, so it won’t easily fall for such tricks,” Du Preez said.

According to the two, the technology is unique. Although some toys make sounds and react to stimuli, they never actually form a bond with their owner.

One such toy, a baby harp seal called Paro, retails for around $6 000 (R42 000). More than just a toy, it is used for animal therapy overseas, especially amongst the aged and dementia sufferers.

And while that toy can distinguish between light and dark, and can feel and react to touch and motion, it would react the same to anyone.

Ideally, the Communi-Kat software would work in conjunction with similar software.

Du Preez and Schwardt believe that there could be a therapy component to Communi-Kat too, especially when used with children who have been abused and behave abusively as a result.

At this stage Communi-Kat is still in its infancy. The prototype is just a basic furry toy, with a speaker and microphone system pushed under its striped hoodie, which is then hooked up to a computer and the software.

But, the developers say, once a toy company has shown an interest in the technology and the toy goes into production, all of the functionality will be internal.

The next step will be to partner with a toy producer, after which the toy would be manufactured.

However, said Schwardt, it would be at least two years before Communi-Kat was on the shelves.

Anita Nel, chief executive of Innovus Technology Transfer, said the best news about Communi-Kat was that years of fundamental research was being applied to a “nice” product.

“I am personally very excited about this project, and we hope to find a company that will invest with us in taking this to the market.” - Sunday Argus