Cat translator app Meowtalk launched to a lot of excitement in the press back in November last year, and its fanbase has kept on growing. With over 5 million downloads, the Android and Apple app that promises to help you understand what your cat is trying to say to you has gone global. With added language support for Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Ukrainian, Italian, Greek, German, and French the app is truly helping pet owners recognize what their furry friends are trying to get them to do across the world.
Top cat apps are nothing new, but this one was developed by Javier Sanchez, a former Amazon engineer who worked on voice-recognition device Alexa. The Meowtalk app actually analyses cat sounds to see if it can work out the meaning behind them. And with 40 million 'meows' now recorded in the database, Sanchez has big plans to further the understanding of cat-human communication!
Strangely, meows are mostly a person-cat interaction rather than one used between cats themselves. As Sanchez explained to KING5 when the app launched: "It's not a language. They don’t share words or communicate with each other. Cats never meow at each other out in nature."
He means adult cats: Kittens do, to let their mothers know they are hungry or cold, but they stop doing that once they get older. They certainly meow at people though – presumably because they’ve worked out that it gets their owners to do what they want and stroke or feed them! .
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Testing the Meowtalk app
Of course, the proof is in the pudding, so we downloaded the Meowtalk app to try it out on a particularly vocal cat called Pirate, to see if it could help us work out what she was saying.
Of course, cats don’t play ball with technology, and it wasn't easy to capture the 5 to 10 sounds required for the app to train itself to translate further sounds from your particular cat. Pirate was having a fun old time yowling and meowing as she does most mornings, that is, until the moment the phone was presented to her to record the sounds. Cue a stony silence and a puzzled look.
As she got used to having a phone thrust towards her every time she made a noise, her want for food or attention overtook her discomfort and we could capture the sounds needed. As each one was recorded, the app suggests a translation, and you can tell the app whether you think it has captured what she meant, or choose from a dropdown of other suggestions.
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There are 14 translation suggestions to choose from (as well as ‘Unknown’ and ‘Other’). They include likely meanings such as ‘Feed me!’, ‘Let me out’, I’m in pain’ and ‘Hello’, but the default translation, at least in our experience, is the rather pleasing ‘I’m in love’. Once you’ve trained the app it gets better at matching the sounds to previously vetted examples. Of course, this means you are adding what you think the sounds mean to the app, so could be skewing the results. To counter that, the app is also building a database of cat sounds from other users and their suggested meanings from across the world, suggesting it should grow more accurate over time.
Here’s an example of one of the sounds we captured from Pirate which the app suggested meant ‘I’m in love’. See if you agree with the translation Meowtalk provided:
Whether you agree or not, it’s a fun app, and it does have its uses. Sanchez tells us his app has helped owners to get closer to their four-legged friends: "People who train the app to learn their cat's unique vocabulary are blown away. Other users who have a strong bond with their cat love being able to play back the recordings of their cat. Many people have told us that they cried when their cat said "I love you" or "Mommy" for the first time."
He adds, "The most moving emails we have received are from users who have had a cat pass unexpectedly and that because of the app they have a record of their cat's voice that they can play back. We get emails like that often."
The future for MeowTalk
In the six months Meowtalk has been out there in the world, Sanchez and his team haven't been resting on their laurels. Sanchez tells us "To help us improve the app's artificial intelligence, we've enabled users to send us manually recorded and labelled meows through the app. This helps the app learn from meows it can't detect on its own. We believe all cats have about 20 natural vocalizations that they instinctively use with each other. Out of the box, MeowTalk translates 9 of those. We're updating the artificial intelligence of the app with a new translation very soon, "Give me attention", that we've developed from user corrections through the app."
Meowroom mode, smart collars and health tracking
But it's not just added meanings; a new Meowroom mode will soon turn the app into a smart speaker for cats. As Sanchez explains, "If you have a spare tablet or old phone, you can plug it into the wall and put MeowTalk on it in MeowRoom mode and it will translate (with Meow-to-Speech) each meow your cat makes in the room. Every device that's logged in with the same MeowTalk account will get an alert to the recorded meow in real time."
Longer term Sanchez is already working on the future of cat translation and monitoring: "My vision has always been for a collar that translates a cat's meows to speech. We're working fast and hard to make a viable collar device with hardware beta testing starting this quarter. We'll be adding support for Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Thai and Indonesian next week. And we're releasing an initial version of our Cat Health and Wellness features in June which will allow pet owners to track their cat's health."
Why isn't there a BarkTalk app for dogs?
A lot of the feedback Sanchez gets through the user reviews and feedback to the app is dog owners pleading for a version of the app for dogs. Sadly, Sanchez can't fulfil their wishes: "I wish we could make BarkTalk happen but the data and science aren't there for this. Dogs just don't have the vocal capabilities to make more than a handful of distinct sounds - there isn't enough distinction between their barks."
Jamie Middleton is a freelance editor and writer who has been editing and creating content for magazines and websites for over 20 years. As well as writing about the pets he loves, he has helped create websites about tech and innovation like TechRadar.com, Innovate UK and TechSPARK, written programmes for music festivals, books on inventions and architecture, TV listings magazines, and edited publications about cars such as Lexus, Toyota and Jaguar. He is currently the content director for Space.com and Live Science. In his spare time he writes fiction books and poetry - or at least he does when he is permitted to by his cat Pirate, who enjoys the warmth of laptops too much to allow being creative to get in the way.
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