Meow. Mah! Mowwwww …
Exactly what is your cat trying to say with different vocal tones? Kitties definitely seem to have a range of sounds they use to make us smile, love us, pester us, and even shame us when we deserve it. (My cats have a vocal chorus that means something like “Get up and feed us right now, you lazy bum!”)
Related: 6 Cat Meow Sounds and What They Mean
A new app, MeowTalk, will translate your cat’s vocabulary – namely meows, but also purrs and hissing – into human words. MeowTalk filters out human talking and zeroes in on the cat sounds with about 98.5% accuracy, says inventor Javier Sanchez, an engineer with Bellevue, Wash.-based Akvelon, Inc.
“The meow-detection piece of it is pretty good,” says Javier. “We put a lot of work into making sure that happens very accurately and very quickly.”
When the app picks up on a cat sound, it assigns it to one of nine human categories: resting, hunting, pain, calling for mother, mating call, angry, happy, defense and fighting. This can help you understand your cat’s emotional and physical state and help alert you to any problems – although for many users, MeowTalk is just plain fun and entertaining.
“It’s really going to give you visibility on the well-being of your cats,” he says. “You can use that information to improve the quality of your cat’s life.”
The elementary beta version of MeowTalk is available for a free download on your smartphone. Javier is in the process of updating it and adding more categories like “I’m scared” and “I’m lonely” – he says the app could easily double its categories. Until then, the app will assign the closest label to your cat’s sounds, and you can invent and assign your own meows – like, for instance, if your cat has a “Feed me” sound, you can note that and add it to your list.
All of this translating and labeling help grow your interspecies conversation. “Cats are chatty,” Javier says. “If you encourage them to talk, they will talk with you.”
Unfortunately, my chattiest cat – Kringle, a longhaired orange kitty who usually meows when I interact with him – would not cooperate when I tried testing the app out on him. That’s cats for you – they do things on their terms! But hopefully, your cat will respond, even if he is shy at first. You open the app, create a profile for your cat and press the cat button when you want to begin recording. If your cat talks, the app will process the sound, then display the human translation.
Javier, a former senior technical program manager for Amazon, got inspired to create MeowTalk when he was listening to NPR and heard a talk by Swedish professor Susanne Schötz, who wrote the book “The Secret Language of Cats: How to Understand Your Cat for a Better, Happier Relationship.” He wanted to take this data and science to the next level.
Most of the feedback on MeowTalk has been mostly very positive. According to Javier, of almost 19,000 reviews, the average is 4.3 stars out of five. Some people have found uses for it that he didn’t anticipate. One woman who gave the app a five-star review cherished how it recorded the meow of her dying cat, and she could replay it as a memorial.
“She did not know she needed this or wanted this,” Javier says. He is a lifelong cat lover who has a kitten named Mittens, and he takes care of two semiferals: a Siamese named Mochi and a tuxedo named Candy.
While most users see the app as fun and entertaining at this point, Javier wants his creation to be something deeper that will enhance the human-animal bond. Eventually, he hopes to use the same technology to invent a talking collar that translates the wearing kitty’s sounds and alerts the parent’s phone.
“People are socially distancing and not in human relationships as much … but they have their cats,” Javier says, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic. “If they can build a stronger relationship with their cats even just a little bit, that’s super meaningful now.”