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I Built My Own CatFi Box to See How Much My Cats Eat

With the free CatFi Box app, you can make your cat's mealtimes a high-tech affair.

Heather Marcoux  |  Jan 18th 2016


When my husband told me that CatFi was launching a DIY version of its facial-recognition cat-feeder software, I was super stoked. I’ve been coveting the CatFi Pro diet-tracking auto-feeder since 2014, when it made a splash as an Indiegogo project under its former name, Bistro.

As the guardian of two cats — Ghost Cat and Specter, who must’ve been pigs in a past life — the idea of tracking each kitty’s eating habits appeals to me. It’s hard to tell who ate what unless I sit and watch each of their multiple meals. Unfortunately, the high-tech CatFi Pro (with precision weight sensors for calculating exactly how much your cat is eating and drinking) hasn’t yet reached the manufacturing stage, and even if it had, I likely wouldn’t be able to justify the predicted $200-plus price tag for the fancy cat food dispenser. My husband estimates we spend about half that amount on cat food and supplies for our girls each month, so I really need to put my money where their mouths are.

The CatFi Pro prototype dispenses food and water and tracks how much your cat takes of each. (Photo courtesy CatFi)

The CatFi Pro prototype dispenses food and water and tracks how much your cat takes of each. (Photo courtesy CatFi)

That’s why I was so excited about the free version of kitty facial recognition — CatFi Box. Without the costly fancy hardware, the CatFi Box app allows you to make your own cat bowl surveillance system using just an app, a spare phone, and some cardboard. My Amazon addiction ensured I have plenty of cardboard, and my husband’s cell phone addiction provided the spare Android phone (seriously, when I asked him how many phones he currently has, he replied, “Three, plus the Windows phone and that Note”).

It’s important to note that unlike the CatFi Pro prototype, the CatFi Box software can’t dispense food. This lower-tech version just captures images of your cats. You set up the app on your regular phone and a spare Android phone to be used as the box camera. On the receiving phone, you set up profiles for each cat. The images captured by the box phone will be sent to your phone for tagging, so that the app learns which cat is which.

This illustration shows how the cardboard CatFi Box works.  (Image courtesy CatFi)

This illustration shows how the cardboard CatFi Box works. (Image courtesy CatFi)

Before you can do all that though, you need to set up the physical part of CatFi Box — the feeding station. According to CatFi, you can either download CatFi’s die cutting file or figure out your own way to mount the phone. As a non-mathy person who finds assembling Ikea furniture to be incredibly difficult, I had trouble following the cutting file. In the end I just repurposed a cardboard box from a recent purchase, cut some cat faces out of leftover holiday bags, and got creative with Scotch tape.

“Why are you making a box for kitten heads?” Ghost Cat was initially confused by my sudden interest in arts and crafts.

My basic box design involved cutting a triangular shape out of the top of the box (to let in some light) and creating a sling to mount the phone at the back. I’m particularly proud of the phone sling — it’s probably one of the most brilliant ideas I’ve ever had in my entire life. I feel like this project was my redemption for that time in middle school where we all had to build an unsinkable boat out of cardboard and newspaper and I failed because mine was pretty but wouldn’t float.

Anyway, after cutting all the cardboard flaps from the top of my box, I saved one and folded it in half. I then cut away a bit of cardboard to allow the phone’s camera to peek through. Then, I pushed the flaps on the bottom of the box inwards to create an unobstructed view, taped the sling to the back of the box, and slid the phone inside. This method allowed me to remove the phone easily, and I could also connect the phone to a charger while it was in the sling.

Ghost Cat loves the CatFi box

“Oh, it’s for food? I like this. This is mine. I’ll rub my face on it.”

With the phone in the sling, I used duct tape to secure my cats’ dish inside the box before taping the whole thing to a counter (like most kitties, mine take great joy in knocking things to the floor). I poured some food into the dish and watched as these cats came running. I left the room and my phone promptly began receiving notifications asking me to tag my cats in video.  

"We know you've been spying on us. You can make it up to us by filling this bowl."

“We know you’ve been spying on us. You can make it up to us by filling this bowl.”

When tagging your clips, you select one of the cat profiles you previously created or you select “others” (at first I didn’t understand why this option existed, but it came in handy when non-cat members of the household accidentally set off the camera). Before installing my box, I had already made a profile for each of my cats in the app, but I hadn’t counted on the fact that they would both be sticking their heads into the box at the same time. I made a third profile labelled “both” so that I could accurately tag when they were sharing the bowl.

When both cats crowded into the box the images weren't great.

When both cats crowded into the box the images weren’t great. Too dark in there I think.

Over the next 24 hours, I tagged countless videos, and learned a lot about what my cats do when I’m not watching. The surprising part is how much Ghost Cat is actually eating — she gets a lot more than we thought. Ghost Cat was initially in the lead for snacking snapshots, although Speck eventually did catch up to and surpass her.

About a quarter of the time, Ghost Cat and Specter eat together.

Ghost Cat and Specter eat together about a quarter of the time.

After 48 hours, I had enough data to conclude our CatFi experiment (and also my cats had shredded the box). I learned I don’t need to give Ghosty any second helpings, because she is already getting a fair bit of food when I’m not looking. I also learned plenty about using the CatFi Box app, and will do a few things differently next time.

I probably won’t use a box at all, as many of my images were dark and blurry. Instead, I would mount my camera in an overhead fashion, hanging it off a shelf above the cat dish. My husband tried this out, and his images were much brighter. A cardboard-less setup means I’ll be able keep the camera phone plugged in and charging (having the camera running constantly drained the battery pretty quickly) without having to worry about creating a fire hazard.

Next time I will also position the CatFi so that my dogs and I aren't setting it off all the time. I deleted a ton of pictures like this.

Next time I will also position the CatFi so that my dogs and I aren’t setting it off all the time. I deleted a ton of pictures like this by selecting “others”.

For a free app, CatFi Box is pretty amazing, and makes me think the CatFi Pro might be worth the cost (and wait) after all.

Would you spy on your cat at mealtimes? Tell us in the comments!

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About the author: Heather Marcoux is a freelance writer in Alberta, Canada. Her beloved Ghost Cat was once her only animal, but Specter the kittenGhostBuster the Lab and her newest dog, Marshmallow, make her fur family complete. Heather is also a wife, a bad cook and a former TV journalist. Some of her friends have hidden her feed because of an excess of cat pictures. If you don’t mind cat pictures, you can follow her on Twitter; she also posts pet GIFs on Google +