Nybble in action. Photo courtesy of Petoi.

Earlier this week, Pittsburgh-based computer scientist Dr. Rongzhong Li unveiled the Nybble to the world. While it may look like a charming, steampunk inspired toy, Dr. Li and his team say the feline represents a whole new approach to teaching science.

The project began as a hobby of Li’s while he was teaching computer science at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Initially, the idea was just to create simple electronic models and programs that could replicate the movements of a house cat.

“First we had OpenCat, and I was just playing and learning,” Li says, “Cats are masters of physics. I wanted to try to reproduce their movements.”

As he worked, Li shared his progress with fellow enthusiasts on YouTube and the software development platform GitHub. After steadily building a following over several months, OpenCat truly went viral in February of this year, after IEEE, the world’s largest and most prominent technology professional organization, featured a video of the gadget on its news portal.

Soon, Li was getting flooded requests for consumer models of the robot pet toy that teaches, and he decided to make his hobby a full-time job.

When it came time to decide where the best place to launch his start-up would be, Li says the choice was simple: “I choose Pittsburgh for its reputation in technology and robotics.”

Since arriving, Li has been able to take advantage of the many support systems available to entrepreneurs looking to break into robotics and advanced manufacturing.

For the last several months, Li has been working out of Factory Unlocked, a coworking space and business accelerator on the North Side, to launch his company Petoi. Beyond having affordable space for his business, he’s been involved in the advising and entrepreneur training support offered by the program. He even taught himself how to use the complex laser cutting and sanding tools found in Factory Unlocked’s workroom.

“I’m always learning,” he says.

Dr. Rongzhong Li with Nybble. Courtesy of Petoi.

The final model is known as the Nybble, and Li launched a crowdfunding campaign earlier this week on Indiegogo to support a line of made-to-order cat companions. The response was huge: Li’s campaign is already 105 percent funded within just a few days. Kits can be purchases on the Indiegogo page, with the starter set costing $200.

Speaking to NEXTpittsburgh, Li says that as an educator, he wants to design a teaching tool that could apply to a wide range of mathematics and engineering skills. Assembling the cat and connecting its circuits teaches basic engineering skills that even middle school students can enjoy, while learning how to program the movements of the cat in Python language will teach computer science to high school and college students.

Li says that the underlying code will remain open source, meaning that more advanced programmers are free to augment their cats with even more movements.

As more Nybbles go out into the world, Li said he even hopes the more artistically-minded will embrace the many possibilities for personalizing and decorating the cat.

“It’s all about learning and sharing what you have learned,” says Li.

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.